I’m not very familiar with the phrase “helter-skelter.” The only times I remember hearing the phrase “helter-skelter,” is in the song “American Pie” by Don McLean. He sings, “Helter-Skelter in a summer swelter, the birds flew off with a fallout shelter.” There is discussion and debate about the song by Don McLean, but this article isn’t about the song “American Pie.” This article is about the origin of the phrase, “helter-skelter.”
Of course, “Helter-Skelter” is a song by the Beatles. It can be found on The White Album.
The lyrics in Don McLean’s “American Pie” do refer to the Beatles’ song and also to the serial killer, Charles Manson, who thought that the song was talking directly to him to kill a family.
While the lyrics of McLean’s “American Pie,” refer to the Beatles’ song, they are appropriate because the phrase “helter-skelter” means “in a chaotic manner” or “in a disorderly manner.” Things would obviously be quite disorderly after the attack of a serial killer.
These things still don’t lead to any idea of the origin of the phrase “helter-skelter.”
It seems that slides in fairs in the United Kingdom were also called helter-skelter, but there doesn’t seem to be any insight into the origin of the phrase there. Rather, they were called helter-skelter because of the meaning of the phrase.
The exact origin of the phrase is not certain. However, the first printed version of the phrase “helter-skelter” seems to be “Helter skelter, feare no colours, course him, trounce him.” This comes from the 1592 writing, “Four letters confuted” by Thomas Nashe.
Confute means “to render futile” or “to prove an argument false.”
It is obvious that the phrase “helter-skelter” was known at least since the end of the 16th century. However, there does not seem to be any more references to help discover the origin of the phrase.
It is interesting to note that “helter-skelter” is always found as a phrase. Some people use the hyphen between the words and others don’t use the hyphen. However, “helter” is never found as a single word and “skelter” is never found as a single word.
American Pie Lyrics – Don McLean. (n.d.). Lyrics, Song Lyrics LyricsFreak.com. Retrieved July 21, 2010, from http://www.lyricsfreak.com/d/don+mclean/american+pie_20042099.htm
American Pie by Don McLean. (n.d.). The History of Rock and Roll. Retrieved July 21, 2010, from http://www.history-of-rock.com/americantwo.htm
Fontenot, R. (n.d.). The “American Pie” FAQ — What’s the meaning of Verse 4 (“Helter Skelter in a summer swelter”)?. Oldies Music at About.com — Oldies Music and Artists — Top 40 Music from the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. Retrieved July 21, 2010, from http://oldies.about.com/od/70spopandsoul/f/ampieverse4.htm
Martin, G. (n.d.). Helter-skelter. The meanings and origins of sayings and phrases | List of sayings | English sayings | Idiom definitions | Idiom examples | Idiom origins | List of idioms | Idiom dictionary | Meaning of idioms. Retrieved July 21, 2010, from http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/helter-skelter.html
Spoonful, t. L. (n.d.). “American Pie” Lyrics – What Do They Mean?. The Wisconsin Historic Rail Connection. Retrieved July 21, 2010, from http://www.whrc-wi.org/americanpie.htm