A BEAUTY OF SLANG is its etymological appeal. Why “23” anyway? And, y’know, is it “hep” or “hip”? This clearly calls for some research.
My sources are multitudinous. With the exception of the Internet, none is particularly new, but that’s okay because slang is, like, ephemeral. Let’s allow the latest street cred to hang out for awhile to see whether it has legs.
To Have Legs. This is theater talk for endurance, sustainability, something that will continue after its initial success. Some sources say “to have legs” has been around since the 1700s; others credit it to 1970s newspapers. Sometimes etymology is definitive; sometimes it ain’t.
Me? I propose it may have an oenophilic origin: A wine exhibiting excellent body by clinging to the inner surface of a gently tilted glass is said “to have good legs.” In fact, I knew a oenophile who would add “and a nice smile too.”
Partridge continues with skedaddle or skeedadle: “v.i. (Of soldiers) to flee: orig. (1861), U.S. anglicised ca. 1864… ‘The American War has introduced a new and amusing word.’ Probably of fanciful origin… though ‘The word is very fair Greek, the root being that of ‘skedannumi,’ to disperse, to retire tumultuously, and it was probably set afloat by some professor at Harvard’ is not to be dismissed with contempt.”
Why”23″? Curiously, this brings us back to legs again. Wikipedia offers an extensive entry on 23 skidoo, “an American slang phrase popularized during the early 20th century. It generally refers to leaving quickly, being forced to leave quickly by someone else, or taking advantage of a propitious opportunity to leave. The exact origin of the phrase is uncertain.”
My favorite theory is supported by a 1901 nickelodeon film, a turn-of-the-century analog to Marilyn Monroe’s billowing dress in The Seven Year Itch, 1955.
A year later came the Flatiron Building at Madison Square, the 23rd Street intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue. “Because of the shape of the building,” Wikipedia writes, “winds swirl around it. During the early 1900s, groups of men reportedly gathered to watch women walking by have their skirts blown up, revealing legs, which were seldom seen publicly at that time. Local constables, when sometimes telling such groups of men to leave the area, were said to be ‘giving them the 23 Skidoo.’ ”
Hep? Or Hip?Wikipedia describes (and Partridge corroborated) that “Slang dictionaries of past centuries give a term hip or hyp meaning melancholy or bored, shortened from the word hypochondriac.” This usage, more prevalent around 1800, was virtually extinct by 1900.
Wikipedia says, “The word hip in the sense of ‘aware, in the know’ is first attested in a 1902 cartoon by Tad Dorgan and first appeared in print in a 1904 novel by George Vere Hobart, Jim Hickey, A Story of the One-Night Stands, where an African-American character uses the slang phrase ‘Are you hip?’ ”
P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster used the term “get hep” in 1946. A year later, jazz artist Harry “The Hipster” Gibson wrote the song It Ain’t Hep about the switch from hep to hip.
The New York Review, May 20, 1965, cites a letter from Robert S. Gold: “Anyone familiar with the jazz scene (or anyone familiar with my recent dictionary of jazz slang, A Jazz Lexicon) knows that the word has always been ‘hip,’ and that ‘hep’ is hopelessly square.”