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Bolt, Skedaddle, Hightail and Book


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.


Hush your pups, boy.

Dear Word Detective: My grandmother, who was born in a small Tennessee town that doesn’t even warrant a dot on maps, once used the word “goozle” in a sentence. It was hilarious! She took a bite of a spicy piece of Popeye’s fried chicken, and exclaimed, “Whoa! That nearly burnt off mah goozle!” My brother and I obviously busted out laughing, but once we regained our composure, we asked what a “goozle” is. She motioned towards her throat, and advised that a “goozle” is a throat. Is this a real word? My grandmother never went to school, and grew up very poor, so one can’t help but wonder if she fabricated this word. — Mark Haney.

Well, what if she did? “Goozle” strikes me (to borrow from The Simpsons) as a perfectly cromulent word. Given that somebody, somewhere, had to cook up all the words we use every day, “goozle” is one of the better inventions I’ve seen. It certainly beats “infotainment.”

Wonderful. My spellchecker finds “infotainment” perfectly acceptable. Shoot me now.

In any case, your grandmother did not, in fact, invent “goozle.” According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), “goozle” is well-established as a dialect term in the southern US meaning “throat” in general, or specifically the windpipe, gullet or Adam’s apple. The citations in DARE go back to the late 19th century, but “goozle” was almost certainly in use long before it made it into print, so it may be much older. Marjorie Rawlings used the term in her 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling (” If he [a hog] didn’t have no goozle, he couldn’t squeal.”). Other forms commonly used include “gozzle,” “gozzle pipe,” “goozem pipe” and “goozler.”

Interestingly, DARE also lists, as a synonym of “goozle” dating back to at least 1865, the word “google,” also meaning “throat.” The founders of the search engine Google have always claimed, of course, that they chose the name as a variation on “googol,” a math term meaning one followed by 100 zeros. But perhaps there was a meta-joke in there somewhere about people swallowing that “googol” story.

If we follow “goozle” back a bit further, we come to an interesting intersection with a far more common word, “guzzle.” Although we use “guzzle” today primarily as a verb meaning “to drink liquor rapidly or greedily,” as a noun it has been used since the mid-17th century to mean “throat” (and the word “guzzle” comes, in fact, from the Old French “gosier,” throat). So it’s evident that your grandmother’s “goozle” is simply a modified form of this fine Old French word for “throat.” Not bad for a small town in Tennessee.

Job’s turkey, poor as

Daunting tasks “r” us.

Dear Word Detective: In reading The Poe Shadow, a historical novel concerning an investigation of the mysterious death of Edgar Poe, the author Matthew Pearl uses the expression “poor as Job’s turkey.” The setting of the novel is 1851 Baltimore. Is Pearl using an expression of the time? Although I’ve read some of the Bible, the Book of Job is overly long; therefore I have not read it. Can you date and explain the reference? — Clete Delvaux, De Pere, Wisconsin.

Good question. Incidentally, why is it that you never run into people with the same last names as truly famous writers? Have you ever met a Poe? A Thackeray? Even a Mailer or a Vidal? Anyone out there know a Tiffany Yeats, a Larry Keats or a Billy Bob Longfellow? Am I the only one who finds this odd?

Onward. In answer to your first question, yes, “poor as Job’s turkey” was indeed a common expression in the mid-19th century, indicating that Mr. Pearl took his research seriously, which is nice to see. There’s nothing worse than shelling out twenty-five dollars for a historical novel and being rewarded with Thomas Jefferson declaring, “As IF, dude.”

Summarizing the Book of Job in one paragraph is a daunting task, but here goes. A righteous and prosperous man, Job has his faith tested by Satan (with God’s permission) and endures all manner of torment, including the loss of his children, his livelihood and his physical health. But Job keeps the faith, and eventually his humility and perseverance in the face of terrible adversity is rewarded.

Whether past centuries were more intrinsically religious than modern times is debatable (somewhere else), but it is indisputable that in 19th century America the Bible played a much more central role in popular culture than it does today. Thus common figures of speech frequently referenced Biblical figures, as in “Adam’s ale” (water) and “Adam’s occupation” (gardening). Since the notable characteristics of the story of Job were his suffering, poverty and endurance, it was common to hear references to “the patience of Job” (“You would provoke the patience of Job,” 1749) or of someone being “poor as Job” (“He’s poor as Job, and not so patient,” 1822).

But human nature can’t resist the urge to embellish, and by the 19th century Americans (especially in the Midwest) were jocularly enhancing these sayings. If Job was poor, his cat (not mentioned in the Bible, of course) must have been even poorer (“I should rather be as poor as Job’s cat all the days of my life,” 1854), and that cat must have been rich as Croesus compared to Job’s poor turkey (“But laws! Don’t I remember when he was poorer nor Job’s turkey!”, 1871).

Job, of course, not only never owned a turkey, but would never have known they existed, since the bird we call a “turkey” is actually native to Mexico. But as a figure of speech that adds a smidgen of silliness to a venerable Bible reference, “poor as Job’s turkey” does the job.