“Now you’re on the trolley!”

October 22, 2008 at 2:44 pm (1920's Culture, All Things Gatsby) (, , , )

The Roaring Twenties was a time of rapid social change.

Expressionism, surrealism, and art deco changed the way the world looked through art.  Jazz changed the way we listened to music and contributed to the explosion of art and culture during the Harlem Renaissance.  Dance moved away from rigid structure and new, more playful forms were invented such as the Charleston and the Shimmy.  Fashion changed dramatically– especially for women, who shunned corsets, raised hemlines, exposed their arms and legs, and wore make-up.

With so many changes, it’s easy to see how language had to evolve to keep up. Many new informal words and expressions –slang– popped up to help articulate the changing times.

Slang described situations, events, relationships and people in a way that formal language could not, and perhaps more importantly- in a way that proper society would not allow.  In this sense, slang separated this new culture from the old, excluding formal society from its discourse.

Money became, “voot,” “berries,” “heavy sugar,” “kale,” “jack,” “mazuma,” “rubes,” and “scratch.”

There was slang to describe all aspects of drinking “giggle water,” “hooch,” and “coffin varnish.”  “I have to go see a man about a dog,” was a sly way to say that they were about to buy illegal “panther sweat” or whiskey, and once sufficiently inebriated, a person was said to be “ossified,” “zozzled,” “fried to the hat,” “canned,” “corked,” “primed,” “scrooched,” “embalmed” “blotto,” “bent,” or “splifficated.” The morning after being “on a toot” (drinking binge) it was expected to have “a hair of the dog (that bit you)” – a shot of liquor to help ease the hangover.

Relationships between men and women were also a target of slang terms and phrases. A “daddy” might suggest to his “Jane,” “Cash or Check?” (Should we kiss now or later?) only to get the “icy mitt” with “Sorry mac, bank’s closed” (No kissing tonight). A “fire extinguisher” was the chaperon who kept the “drugstore cowboys” and their “bear-cats”(wild girl) from “necking”(making out) in the “struggle bunny” (backseat of a car).  A woman wore a “handcuff” (engagement ring) once she was “insured” (engaged).

Men were “baby grands,” “sugar daddies, “dappers,” “fly boys” (pilots), “palookas” (boxers), “Shieks, “Joe Brooks” (perfectly dressed gentlemen), “dewdroppers” (unemployed), and “cake eaters” (ladies men)

While women were “flappers,” “dames,” “debs” (debutantes), “dolls,” “Doras,” “Janes,” “gold-diggers,” “hoofers” (dancers), “Molls” (gangster’s girl), “Shebas,” “tomatoes,” “bug-eyed Betties,” and “flower lovers” (women with too much face powder).

As new social behaviours became the norm, however, much of the 1920’s slang fell into disuse during the Depression and the end of Prohibition, although we still see the lasting effects of 1920’s slang on our modern day lanugage.

Consider these examples of 1920’s slang which will no doubt be familiar to the modern ear:

  • Baloney!
  • I’ve got a crush
  • He double-crossed me
  • It’s the Real McCoy
  • She’s all dolled-up
  • A cup of joe
  • He’s the big cheese.


For more information on slang in the 1920’s visit your local library!


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