Street language and slang give a vibrant snapshot of any era, shifting in response to popular songs, slogans, and catchphrases. They illuminate a decade’s moods and vogues, a certain group’s tastes, a rich moment of communication. In the present time, our clichés appear to be nothing more than mundane clichés but looking back at the jargon of the 20th century in theUS, even the dullest colloquialisms revive our interpretations of history. It’s fascinating to imagine a time when “getting blotto” or “get my goat” were common enough phrases. Where did they originate, and how did such words slink their way into modern culture? In the end, who decided they were old-fashioned or deemed them worthy enough to linger for another lifetime? In this chronological overview of slang during the last hundred years, these questions will be explored as well as perhaps the most important one: how do these words define our culture and way of thought?
Beginning with the early 1900s, there already is a wide range of jargon unique to those years, as well as plenty of terms that are astonishingly popular even today. For example, “pardon my French,” which we all know to be an excuse for swearing in conversations, originated from a 19th century trend of uttering a few words in French, and then asking forgiveness of the listeners in case they did not know the meaning. Usually the foreign words would be of an insult, but the apology was not meant for the offense, but for the speaking of French itself. The phrase evolved slightly over time to pass over strong language as French, even though everyone listening is well aware that the words are English. The phrase is almost a mockery of itself, for alluding to higher class and etiquette while actually speaking in quite base language. “Pardon my French” seems almost to be a precursor to “no offense,” a figure of speech used when one wishes to be frank (sometimes to the point of rudeness) while at the same time, forcing the audience to swipe aside the insult and absolve the speaker of any guilt. Both phrases are useful to anyone who wants to speak their mind without checking their words, which no doubt is the reason “pardon my French” will serve as an excuse for many more years to come.
On the other hand, “to get blotto” is seldom heard, if even at all. Slang for drunkenness or inebriation, it seems it would have been more popular with lower class or youthful groups during the beginning of the 20th century. Similarly, “after you with the push” is a phrase that has been lost to time, and there are no recent references to it. Used politely to address someone who is in a rush, the colloquialism itself has been pushed aside.
Literature also coined new terms during the birth of the century. If one is familiar with Rudyard Kipling, then the poem, “The Absent-Minded Beggar,” would not seem foreign. Written in 1899 as an effort to raise money for the soldiers fighting in the Boer War, the poem was immensely popular; it was transformed into songs and plays, with proceeds donated to the Absent Minded Beggar Fund to aid soldiers and their families. It was an international success, and the phrase was admired and used in theUS as well as Britain.
The word “muckraker” also bloomed out of written pages, and it was applied to the early heads of Progressivism, such as Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, Ida Tarbell, and Jacob Riis. President Roosevelt at the time first claimed them as muckrakers in his 1906 speech, chiding them for raking the mud at their feet and failing to see the promise of the Gilded Age. The term is still used today, though with a much more positive connotation, and is attributed to any journalists who investigate and expose public issues. The original muckrakers made a huge impact on American history, and due to their continual influence to this day, I very much doubt that the word “muckraker” will ever slip of dictionary pages.
We really do think in the most comfortable words rattling around in our minds. We form arguments out of the phrases of the day. We build our jokes and culture on the colloquial language and as trivial as they seem, all these phrases have a dynamic impact on our thoughts and moods. This small morsel of 20th century slang will continue with a new set of words, some familiar sounding, and some utterly strange.
By Maria Peltekova
The Phrase Finder: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/130800.html
Writer’s Dreamtools: http://www.writersdreamtools.com/view/decades/default.asp?Decade=1900
The History Chef: http://lincolnslunch.blogspot.com/2010/07/theodore-roosevelt-muckrakers-and-pure.html