Dear Word Detective: When needing a quick exit, I might bolt for freedom, hightail it out of there, skedaddle, or just book it out of there. I conjecture that “bolt” comes from a bolt of lightning, and “skedaddle” sounds like it means, but why have “book” and “hightail” come to mean “leave quickly?” — Michael Duggan.
Leaving so soon? I must say that yours is one of the better jobs I’ve seen of shoehorning multiple questions into one email. At least the words are related in meaning. More often the question runs something like “Where did ‘cat o’ nine tails’ come from? Is the Mississippi named for somebody? And, by the way, is ‘snuck’ a real word?”
Onward. As you’ve noticed, the lexicon of leaving is a rich and varied one, a tribute to the usual wisdom of choosing “flight” over “fight.” The verb “to bolt,” meaning “to dart or rush suddenly away” is one of the oldest on your list, but to explain the verb “to bolt” we must first explain the noun form. When “bolt” first appeared in Old English, derived from Germanic roots, it meant “projectile,” particularly the sort of short arrow fired from a crossbow. By the early 16th century, we were also using “bolt” to mean a discharge of lightning (“thunderbolt”) and, shortly thereafter, as a metaphor for something dramatic and unanticipated (“bolt from the blue”). The use of “bolt” to mean “arrow” also led to it meaning “stout pin used to hold things together” and even “a roll of fabric” (from its shape). “Bolt” as a verb meaning “leave suddenly and quickly” also harks back to this original “arrow” meaning, the sense being that the person leaves as if shot like an arrow.
“Skedaddle” is a much shorter story, simply because nothing is known of its origins. The best guess I’ve seen is that “skedaddle,” which first appeared as military slang meaning “to flee” during the American Civil War, is related in some way to the Irish word “sgedadol,” meaning “scattered.”
“Hightail” is easier to explain. Many animals, including deer and horses, raise their tails when they flee, making the action a good metaphor for a panicked retreat.
“Book,” meaning “to leave,” apparently has nothing to do with the usual senses of “book” as a noun or verb (as in “Book ‘em, Danno”). It comes, rather, from “boogie,” US slang from the early 20th century originally meaning a style of blues music and later adopted in a more general form to mean “to dance energetically.” An even broader use of “boogie” to mean “move quickly” or “get going” appeared in the 1970s, and “to book,” meaning “to leave; to move quickly and purposefully,” appears to be simply a modified form of “boogie” used in that sense.