What’s a helter-skelter?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: helter-skelter…

I’ve known the meaning of the adverb and adjective helter-skelter for at least 45 years. It means something done in a haphazard manner or with undue haste or confusion.

It was even the title of a gruesome true crime novel I read as a teenager: Helter-Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry — the story of the Charles Manson murders. (How I wish I could get some of those images out of my mind’s eye.)

But as a noun? I didn’t even know the word existed that way, until I read the book Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. Here is the sentence in which she used it:

Our routes coincided for bout half a mile, along a road that swirled around one of the hills like a helter-skelter

Helter-skelter used as a noun, is a British term, referring to a spiral slide around a tower at an amusement park. Although I’ve travelled in the UK, I’ve never managed to see one face-to-face. This may be because I loathe most rides and have never even tried riding a roller coaster. If I had to ride a helter-skelter I’d certainly behave in a confused and haphazard manner afterwards — if I wasn’t busy throwing up!

The etymology of the word is shaky, thought perhaps to relate to the Middle English word skelte, meaning “to hasten, scatter hurriedly.” Word experts believe the first part — helter — exists purely for the sake of rhyme.

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