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What are Some Examples of 1920s Slang?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The 1920s was a colorful decade in both Europe and America, sandwiched between the hardships of the two World Wars. Especially in the United States, the 1920s was also accompanied with a dizzying amount of slang, most of which was used by young people. Many phrases from 1920s slang are still used in modern English, as is the case with terms like “baby” for sweetheart, “necking” for making out, “john” for toilet, and “joe” for coffee. Others have faded into obscurity, only to be revived in films and books which celebrate the 1920s.

1920s slang is often related to alcohol and having a good time, since Prohibition put a premium on both of these things. The slang also reflects changing morals and ideas, especially surrounding sexuality. Flappers, young women who enjoyed risque garments and late night dancing, abounded, as did daddys, wealthy older men, to support them. Many of these terms suggest a sense of fun and mischievousness, both of which ran rampant during the 1920s.

An attractive woman in 1920s slang was a Sheba, while a man was a Sheik. The two might spend a night on the snuggle bunny, the back seat of a car, assuming neither upchucked from drinking too much hooch. A woman might also put the brakes on the proceedings by declaring “the bank's closed,” or she might be a wet blanket and want to go home early. People who stayed out late were known as owls, a term which has endured to this day.

Something particularly excellent might be the bee's knees, the cat's pajamas, or the cat's meow. A woman might get dolled up in her glad rags for a late night on the town, meaning that she put some care into her appearance and wore her nicest garments. After a blind date, one or more participants might carry a torch for the other, assuming that no one got smacked in the kisser, or mouth. Being a good hoofer, a dancer, was also a valued trait.

Given the criminal atmosphere of the 1920s, it should come as no surprise that many 1920s slang terms were related to criminal activity. Someone might be on the lam from the fuzz, indicating that they were avoiding the police, or “on the level,” for law abiding and reasonable. In a hairy situation, someone might become the fall guy, taking the punishment or being framed for a crime. When a joint or club was raided, the celebrants would usually scram in an attempt to avoid being penalized.

In 1920s-speak, an establishment might be ritzy, like the hotel chain, meaning that it was extremely nice. People were advised not to take any wooden nickels, a colorful way to say “don't be stupid,” and stragglers would be exhorted to “get a wiggle on” for “get moving!” And, of course, people were reminded to “mind your own beeswax” if they got too nosy.

The long-term endurance of many 1920s slang terms may be related to a general glorification of the era. It is probably also due to the fact that the 1920s marked a distinct change in attitudes, especially for young people, and it paved the way for many other things, from the spread of jazz to the women's liberation movement. Thus, the neologisms of the 1920s hold particular resonance since many of them describe new concepts.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon931417 — On Feb 08, 2014

Were there any different ways they said goodbye in the 1920's??

By discographer — On Jan 21, 2013

@Mbro88-- Yea, there are many examples of 1920s slang in modern English. For example, "what's eating you? (for what's troubling you)," "dough (for money)," "gay (for happy)," "peachy keen (for great and amazing)," and "dope (for drugs).

I think "attaboy" also comes from slang of the 1920s. It just means good job. "Big shot" is another one, meaning someone who is important. "Bump off" or to kill is another mafia slang. "Swell" is also a really famous word from those years. I've heard it so many times in period movies. It means great, wonderful.

I hope this helped!

By bluedolphin — On Jan 20, 2013

Did you guys know that "take someone for a ride" is a slang from the 1920s?

It is! But the meaning was more literal back then. Today, when you take someone for a ride, it means you're deceiving them or making a fool of them. In the 1920s, it literally meant taking someone for a ride to somewhere isolated and then killing them. It still means that they were deceiving the person because he or she really thought that they're going for a ride.

This is definitely from 1920s gangster slang.

By bear78 — On Jan 19, 2013

Wow, I never knew that 1920s slang was so cool. It's been such a long time but if we wanted I bet we could start using them again with little effort. They're actually not that hard to understand.

Of all the ones mentioned here, I like "the cat's pajamas" best. Does anyone know where this slang came from or who thought of it first?

By vichekalay — On Apr 02, 2008

Thanks all! That's really answering my question.

By leilani — On Apr 02, 2008

Vichekalay - I don't think linguists would say that the 1920s is when slang "exploded". I think many linguists would say that slang has existed as long as there was language. Since it's generally an expression of group attitudes and clearly groups existed for a long time....I think it's been around for a long time. Some places date slang back to the 1300s. But part of the problem with researching it now is that perhaps it was more of a spoken thing and not written....

Mbro88 - 1920s slang is still used in modern English, or perhaps as you would more precisely say, modern American English. People still call the bathroom a john for example, and a cup of coffee a cup of joe.

By Mbro88 — On Apr 02, 2008

Is 1920s slang still used in modern English?

Is this not American English only? I do not think this is European wide as most countries in Europe do not speak English as a native language except GB, and even then this would be American English.

GB English uses its own references and somewhat different at that!

I know wiseGEEK is American, however the article could at least realize influences reside in cultures and may not be used greatly outside of that culture by other speakers of the English language although understood!

By vichekalay — On Apr 02, 2008

Does this mean that 1920s is the decade that European slang exploded? If yes, why 1920s?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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