It’s hard to beat the 1920s for coining more new slang terms and creating new terminology. But the next decade did manage to come up with quite a few phrases that make the 30s linguistically memorable.
Take for instance, “famous last words,” which can be a hobby for some to collect but was originally a sort of ironic remark cast at those who spoke too without thinking. In the 30s, someone who made a comment that could be offensive would hear the phrase “famous last words” as a sort of joking reminder to amend their words before they became their last. The phrase was first printed in a newspaper comic and then quickly caught on.
Another everyday phrase that gained popularity was “moment of truth.” It comes from a translation of the Spanish expression, “el momento de la verdad,” which was used to signify the point in a bullfight when the matador goes for the kill. Ernest Hemingway first used the saying in his novel Death in the Afternoon, published in 1932. This phrase, along with “the calm before the storm,” “tall, dark, and handsome,” and “back to square one” became staples of our current language all due to the 30s. Indeed most of the idioms coined during this era managed to survive throughout the twentieth century, becoming hardened clichés of modern times.
Yet there still are a couple of slang expressions which are hardly overused. “Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle” is an example. Stemming as a result of the Scopes Trial in 1926, which was greatly publicized, the early 30s gave birth to the phrase in print. “Life is just a bowl of cherries” is another expression that flies under the radar. It would be worth fitting into one’s vernacular repertoire if just to explain the song that it originates from: written by Lew Brown and Ray Henderson, and sung by Ethel Merman in 1931, it was a popular melody. The song-writers may have played a twist on the phrase “life is but a cherry-fair” from the 17th century, but either way, it means that life is very short.
On a more somber note, this decade is thought of hand in hand with the Great Depression, which I believe was the influence behind numerous phrases. “Cash on the barrelhead” is one such slang term, meaning cash will be put on the table, or rather, a transaction will be paid for with cash, not credit. It seems reasonable to think that this would be a result of negative economic times. And wouldn’t it seem likely that the Great Depression spurned the expression, “wishful thinking,” because numerous products or dreams would have been out of reach of most people. In addition, the 30s were responsible for creating the “inferiority complex,” both idiomatically and literally.
Overall, it would be very easy to say that this decade has incredibly interesting history when it comes to slang words. While the majority of the phrases did become commonplace items in our vocabulary, their origins are still vibrant, if not peculiar, and the farthest thing from dustbowl-dry.
By Maria Peltekova
The Phrase Finder: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/famous-last-words.html
Writers Dreamtools: http://www.writersdreamtools.com/view/decades/default.asp?Decade=1930#science
Your Dictionary Idioms: http://idioms.yourdictionary.com/moment-of-truth
Words at Random: http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=19981203