For some time now, some of my on-line friends have advised me to provide a version of CassidySlangScam without the invective aimed at Cassidy and his supporters. In response to that advice, I am working on providing a glossary of the terms in Cassidy’s ludicrous book How The Irish Invented Slang with a short, simple and business-like explanation of why Cassidy’s version is wrong.
Helter skelter is what is known as a rhyming jingle (or rhyming reduplication). Such jingles are common throughout the world’s languages. Among examples in English are harum scarum, pell mell and hurly-burly. In Irish, one of the equivalents of helter skelter is caorthain charthain (pr. keerhin kharhin). In modern English, helter skelter mostly refers to a kind of fairground slide. In Irish I would call it a teach solais (lighthouse) because that’s what they look like. (I note that none of the available Irish dictionaries gives a translation for the fairground slide meaning of helter skelter, which is a strange omission.)
This fairground usage of helter skelter is fairly recent. The term originally meant ‘chaotically, in disorder’ and dates back to at least the 16th century. As with most of these rhyming jingles, the individual words probably don’t mean very much.
To Cassidy, of course, these were Irish words. According to Cassidy, helter skelter comes from áilteoir scaoilte, ‘a run amuck clown; an unconstrained wild prankster; a loose-limbed trickster; a joker running loose’. This is nonsense. For one thing, it is an extremely poor match for the known meanings of helter skelter. “They fell a run amok clown down the stairs?” “They ran an unconstrained wild prankster through the door?” I don’t think so.
Another problem is that there is no evidence that the word áilteoir even existed in Irish the 16th century, when the phrase helter skelter first appears in English. It is first recorded in Dinneen’s dictionary in the early 20th century.