The phrase "helter skelter" is strange because you don't see the word "helter" or "skelter" used anywhere, and when I searched Merriam-Webster dictionary for either word it links me to the definition of "helter skelter."


Since helter and skelter are separated by either a space or a hyphen whenever it's used, it seems like a "compound word," but compound words are made up of other words, whereas "helter skelter" is made up of two "non-words" (for lack of a better word (so far)).

What do we call this? Is there a term for a word like "helter" that is only a word when it's paired with another, "skelter?"

  • What's a "word"? Nobody has ever answered that. Calling it a contiguous stretch of alphabetics doesn’t work.
    – tchrist
    Dec 8, 2017 at 3:29
  • 2
    Jeepers creepers tchrist, no need to be hoity-toity or a fuddy-duddy; if the standard is whatever literary bric-a-brac makes its way by hocus-pocus into that knick-knack we calls a hobson-jobson, or dictionary, he shouldn't dilly-dally, but cringle-crangle through that gew-gaw and look it up snip-snap. A shilly-shally through Google wouldn't hurt either; though it can go higgledy-piggledy sort of willy-nilly, we can help argy-bargy through the crinkum-crankum to find the miminy-piminy that makes us hubba-bubba.
    – choster
    Dec 8, 2017 at 6:07
  • 1
    @choster Freeze, mister!
    – tchrist
    Dec 8, 2017 at 14:18

1 Answer 1


"New words formed by fusing together parts of existing words are known as blends. They used to be called portmanteau words..."

Source: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/explore/new-word-combining-two-other-words

noun: helter-skelter; plural noun: helter-skelters

  1. disorder; confusion.
    "the helter-skelter of a school day"
    a tall spiral slide winding around a tower at a fair.

late 16th century (as an adverb): a rhyming jingle of unknown origin, perhaps symbolic of running feet or from Middle English skelte ‘hasten.’

Source: Google Dictionary

It is a compound word, and just because Middle English skelte ‘hasten’ is no longer in use... It doesn't mean the compound form can't persevere.

Helter Skelter, without the hyphen, is the title of a book, a song by The Beatles, and a term in French as well.

  • 1
    Guess the OP skelted to ask his question.
    – Misha R
    Dec 18, 2017 at 6:25
  • No really I think I may have been oh so willfully duped. Twenty three and the like. :)
    – Jesse Ivy
    Dec 19, 2017 at 3:15

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.