The first thing that comes to mind when we think of 1920s is the speakeasy bars and social rebellions. We are not wrong, for that drinking culture culminated in a myriad of slang words related to bars and alcohol. To “dip the bill” or “nibble one” was to “take a drink.” “Giggle juice,” or “giggle water,” or even “tiger milk” was liquor, and the bars that sold them were called a “gin mill” or a “box.” Slang terms were coined for policemen, con men, alcoholics, gunmen, lawyers, and everyone who would be seen at one time or another, in a bar. Mob members included.
Gangster culture arose during 20s and was widely accepted into language. There was a trend of lessening the severity of punishments and crimes through words as a sort of joke against authority. For instances, handcuffs were known as “bracelets,” making the act of getting arrested almost a fashion statement, or a simple, relatively-unstressful procedure.
Numerous phrases for murder, guns, and death became popular. To “blip off” someone meant to kill them, as well as to “bop off,” “clip off,” and “bump off.” The idea of bumping off stemmed from both military and gangster jargon, though predominantly from the latter, where the phrase meant “taking someone for a ride,” in which the victim is pressed into a vehicle and killed during the ride, possible through a push or a “bump.” Similarly, “to fill someone with daylight” meant to stab or shoot them full of holes and allow the light to shine through. It is an old expression, coming from the late 1700s, but aptly became popular during this grisly era. The phrase eventually morphed into the modern threat, “I’ll punch the living daylights out of you,” though I personally think the original expression was much more intimidating.
Additionally, Guns were called “gats” (originally short for gatling guns), a “mohaska,” “a bean-shooter,” or just “heat.” Thus, carrying a gun came to be known as “packing heat,” which matched the term “Chicago overcoat,” which symbolized a coffin. It is not surprising that with the increase of violence-related terminology, the word “death” also earned a new nickname: “The Big One,” though perhaps it is surprising that such morbid words were not exemplified so much at a time of war, such as the 1910s.
In a way however, the gangster noir lifestyle presented another type of social war, one that was a counterculture to the counterculture of speakeasies and drinking. In contrast to the frivolous, flirtatious, and fashion-based mood of 20s, the underground world was the sobering and dark portion of society. Yet both cultures have in common the fact that they are greatly romanticized and this is a possible reason why so many of the more serious terms such as death and murder were colloquialized into lighter terms.
It’s also peculiar to note how many labels suddenly emerged for people and objects. The 20s gave birth to a few interesting phrases, but for the most part, one-word labels were the dominant form of slang. Why were so many freshly cobbled words now popular? Perhaps the rebellious youths of the decade wanted to insert a new level of control over language, and thus repainted the words of their predecessors. Perhaps the surge of original terminology reflected the hint of secrecy and underground flair of the era. Demonstrating a thorough knowledge of slang would surely bring insider status to anyone wishing to be invited to the gin mill, or maybe just far out of the way of a bean-shooter as possible.
By Maria Peltekova
The Word Wizard: http://www.wordwizard.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=5479
Molls and Dolls, 1920s Slang: http://mollsanddolls.blogspot.com/2007/10/1920s-slang-dictionary.html
The Worlds – Write Now: http://theworlds-writenow.blogspot.com/2011/02/omd-its-word-and-phrase-derivation-day.html