The Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue was first published at the end of the eighteenth century, and given that the current health crisis is giving too much time to read books, I thought I’d pick a daily word from it until I got bored….
This phrase is normally used today when referring to an amusement park ride, but its definition in the late eighteenth-century dictionary was “to run helter skelter, hand over head, in defiance of order”. The exact word origins for this phrase have long been lost as it has been used since at least the early sixteenth century and Shakespeare also used the term. ‘Skelten’ in Middle English meant to hasten, so it’s likely linked to that, with the ‘helter’ bit added later for extra emphasis.
Despite the reusing of the word in the early twentieth century as a ride, the phrase had remained in relatively constant use during the nineteenth century. There was a small uptick in usage during the 1960s, but this is likely due to the Beatles issuing a song entitled, well, Helter Skelter.