"Skadoosh" and the case of the schwa

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In today's Boston Globe it's my honor to pinch-hit for a vacationing Jan Freeman, who writes a fantastic weekly column called "The Word." I took the opportunity to write about a word popularized by the new movie "Kung Fu Panda": skadoosh. Or is it skidoosh? Or maybe skedoosh?

There's no fixed spelling for the word (at least not yet), since it started off as an unscripted ad-lib from Jack Black, the voice of Po the Panda. I went with skadoosh since that's the way it appeared on a T-shirt designed by a crew member (as I learned from my high school friend Mark Osborne, who, as luck would have it, co-directed the movie). But skidoosh might make more historical sense, since Jack Black was inspired by the old slang expression (23) skidoo. Then again, skidoo is probably derived from skedaddle (by way of the variant scadoodle), so why not skedoosh?

All of these are potential spellings of [skəˈduʃ], since the unstressed mid-central vowel, a.k.a the "schwa" sound, is notoriously fickle in its orthographic representation. The Wikipedia article on "schwa" gives examples for all six letters typically used in English to render vowel sounds:

  • like the <a> in about
  • like the <e> in taken
  • like the <i> in pencil
  • like the <o> in eloquent
  • like the <u> in supply
  • like the <y> in sibyl

To these we could add two-letter sequences with <r>, particularly <er> and <ur>, which can be used by non-rhotic speakers to represent the same unstressed vowel. (For more on this point, see Heidi Harley's recent post on phrasebook pronunciation and my post from last year, "Pinker's almer mater.") For instance, a British speaker could represent the onomatopoetic kaboom as kerboom. The OED draft entry for kaboom gives this example from Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island (1995): "Brightly pulsating machines, some of them playing electronic tunes or making unbidden kerboom noises." Bryson was born in Iowa but has spent most of his adult life in England, and his book was originally published by Doubleday in Great Britain, so I would guess the spelling of kerboom is either his own Briticization or his editor's.

More examples along these lines can be found in the OED entry for ker-, defined as "the first element in numerous onomatopoeic or echoic formations intended to imitate the sound or the effect of the fall of some heavy body." Spelling variants include ke-, ca-, ka-, che-, and co-. These initial elements can attach to -chunk, -flop, -plunk, -slam, -slap, -slash, -souse, -swash, -swosh, -thump, -whop, and more. Many of the ker- words date to nineteenth-century American usage, when it would have been quite likely for <er> to represent schwa, since more Americans were non-rhotic back then, especially in the Northeast. But perhaps like examples given in my post last year, the <er> in words like kerplunk originally had a non-rhotic pronunciation of [ə] but then got reanalyzed rhotically by /r/-ful speakers.

So far I only see one Googlehit for the pronunciation spelling skerdoosh for the "Kung Fu Panda" word. But the movie just premiered in London a few days ago, so we can probably expect that spelling to spread over the summer as more non-rhotic speakers pick up the word.

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17 Comments »

  1. Ollock said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

    On another note with dialects — rhotics vs non-rhotics aren't the only one's to deal with. In my dialect, it seems that /ɛ/ and /i/ will often be reduced to [ɪ] rather than [ə], making the a-spelling preferable to me to preserve the [ə].

    Of course, we'll see what spelling(s) win :P

  2. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 2:23 pm

    I saw a friend spell it as "skadouche".

  3. Bob Lieblich said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 5:31 pm

    I haven't seen the movie, so I don't know the context, but I have been aware for a while of a word usually spelled "squadoosh," with the first syllable pronounced just like the word "squad." From the usage, I quickly concluded that it's a synonym of "zilch," i.e., "nothing." It has an entry in the urban dictionary http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=squadoosh , which adds some info on the likely source and an alternative meaning. Could Black have drawn on it for his ad lib?

  4. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 5:43 pm

    Bob: I mention squadoosh in the Globe column — it could've been an indirect influence, but according to Mark Osborne, Jack Black said he came up with the word by fusing skidoo with douche.

    (See also the recent ADS-L discussion on squadoosh, which grew out of Jonathan Lighter's post on skadoosh, which he spelled as skidoosh.)

  5. john riemann soong said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 6:12 pm

    It seems to me that /ɪ/ is sometime's English's "second schwa". Witness the pronunciations of words like "language" (is it related to the how "women" became "wi-men"?), the pronunciation of "accurate" (sometimes), "vinegar" (because of umlaut-ish vowel harmony, perhaps?), and "pencil" (when it's near the end of a question, e.g. "Can you give me the pencil?"), so on and so forth.

  6. Jangari said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 7:26 pm

    The skedaddle reference interested me. Without ever knowing, or bothering to check the etymology – which I see now is particularly vague – I had always thought this was derived from a hurried pronunciation of (let) 's get out of (here).

    I usually justify this based on the fact that it's completely fossilised in my opinion; I can't say "They all skedaddled" or "I'm skedaddling", really only "let's skedaddle".

    The closest thing the OED has to an etymology is labelled prob. fanciful:

    Said to be of Swedish and Danish origin, and to have been in common use for several years throughout the Northwest, in the vicinity of immigrants from those nations’ (Webster, 1864); but there are no forms in Sw. or Da. sufficiently near to be seriously taken into account. There is some slight evidence of the currency of the word in English and Scottish dialect use before it became prominent in America, but it is doubtful how far this is of importance for its origin.

    Anyone got any better ideas?

  7. KCinDC said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 11:20 pm

    To me, "They all skedaddled" is perfectly normal, even more normal than "Let's skedaddle", though "I'm skedaddling" seems odd. My first thought for a typical sentence using "skedaddle" would be something like "You'd better skedaddle." So I'd never connect the word with "Let's get out of here."

  8. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    June 29, 2008 @ 11:23 pm

    Jangari: The most thoroughgoing analysis appears in "Etymology of skedaddle and related terms" by Gerald Leonard Cohen (Studies in Slang, Part I, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1985, pp. 29-63). He takes seriously the "slight evidence" mentioned in the OED etymology, namely that the American usage of skedaddle was predated in Scottish/N. Eng. dialects in the sense "spill, scatter". He believes that it is ultimately derived from Scottish skiddle "scatter".

    Cohen argues convincingly for the Scottish origin, and also makes a good case for scadoodle as the intermediary link between skedaddle and skidoo. Unfortunately I didn't have room in the Globe column to credit his work directly.

  9. sandra wilde said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 1:17 am

    The schwa is also often spelled with more than one letter: delicIOUS, specIAl, and many others. PS: I'm the author of What's a Schwa Sound Anyway? Though my book isn't primarily about schwas, I usually feel obliged to comment on the topic.

  10. Steve said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 4:45 am

    My impression from a British perspective is that Bill Bryson's spelling of 'kerboom' is unusual, if not unique to him. I've generally seen it spelt 'kaboom' – though it's possible that I don't read the sort of texts in which it crops up most frequently. 'Kerplunk', on the other hand, strikes me as much more common than 'kaplunk'.

    Still, on the main point, for me as a non-rhotic speaker, the two spellings would certainly be identical in pronunciation.

  11. Nick Z said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 5:47 am

    For me at least (standard-ish British English speaker), ker- and ka- are not the same, and nor are um and erm, uh and er, as suggested by Heidi Harley in her posting. While they are equally non-rhotic, the spellings with -r- imply lengthening and raising of the vowel (compare "hum" and "herm").

  12. James Wimberley said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 6:09 am

    On the other hand, I – another Southern English standardish speaker, though fossilised by thirty-five years of expat life – would treat "kaboom" as a cue to pronounce the "a" long and semi-stressed, possibly even followed by a glottal stop, and the "er" in "kerboom" as an unstressed schwa.

  13. Steve said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 6:57 am

    @Nick Z – actually I've just commented on Heidi Harley's post that 'uh' and 'er' are not the same for me either. As you say they are equally non-rhotic, but the final 'r' lengthens the vowel for me too.

    James Wimberley's impression is the reverse: that the 'er' of 'kerboom' suggests a longer sound. I'm pretty sure I would pronounce both with an identical schwa sound, and both as equally unstressed. But if ever there was a subject on which we might all amicably agree to differ, I think that the standard Southern British pronunciation of an onomatopoeic representation of an explosion is probably one of them.

  14. Ray Girvan said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

    A similar transcription issue: there was a deal of dispute a while back in Blackadder fandom as to how to write the word "w?bble" that he says repeatedly at 4:30 in this clip from the episode Goodbyeee. I can see the problem; it's "wʊbble" (i.e. vowel sound as in "book") so there's no unambiguous way to show it in English. But it's surprising how many people transcribe it as "wibble".

  15. Charles said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 11:45 am

    Of note: Although it has NEVER occurred to me in 26 years that "er" was actually another spelling of "uh", and as a Canadian I would never say a rhotic "er" out loud…

    Somehow "er" did creep into my online chatting vocabulary. I hesitate with "er" more often than "um" or "uh" when typing, because it just looks nicer.

  16. Alexander McLeay said,

    July 1, 2008 @ 8:38 pm

    Sandra, " delicious " actually only has " ou " spelling the schwa ; in that regard for non-rhotic British spellers " colour " is worse. The " ci " before a vowel spells the " sh " sound.

    Ray, I think " wibble " is a common Blackadderism anyway, so people are probably just assuming he's being normal for himself. (I haven't seen that particular link yet because I'm at work, so maybe in context that's a stupid explanation.) On the other hand I gather than in New Zealand they pronounce " woman " and " women " alike, or at least very close — using a schwa, or something quite like it.

  17. Catherine said,

    July 8, 2008 @ 1:25 am

    I am trying to find where it came from… but my parents said that to me as a kid…

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