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.