The legacy of the 1920s is the most vibrant of the early twentieth century, and its slang terminology reflects it. With numerous phrases and words created for dressing up, dancing, entertainment, and flirting, the language itself seemed eager to be frivolous and carefree. Few of the forged colloquialisms appeared to be about somber warnings or war, unlike previous decades; the most subdued slang words were merely about people who were boring or unattractive. Though at first glance the decade may give off an extremely superficial impression, the culture reflects the desperate need for people to break free from the restraints and worries that plagued them during WWI.
Society was led by vivacious youths. As a result, much of the language revealed a laughable view of authority figures. A “big cheese” or “big shot” was an important person, though used somewhat sardonically, even today. Chaperones were called “alarm clocks” or “fire extinguishers,” both terms a clever metaphor for the impediment of flirting between couples. These chaperones could be the reason “the bank’s closed,” meaning no kissing. It is interesting to note though, how much interaction sprung up between different genders, much more than there had been before and at a very quick pace.
This led to the creation of numerous words used to describe girls and boys. For example, a woman could be called an ankle, a bim or broad, a chick, dame, or gal, kitten or a skirt, and those are mere general terms! If a woman was pretty, but was considered dim-witted, she was a tomato; if she was attractive, then she could be called a sheba, a dish, or a looker; and of course, if a woman was stylish with short dresses and shorter hair, she was a flapper. Unattractive women, or more specifically, elderly ladies with a mustache or chin whiskers was called a trotsky,
Likewise, a man could be called a bird or a cat, an egg, a fella, guy, or hombre, a jobbie, mac, or a pal. If he entered nightclubs with the intent of spending a large amount of money, he was a butter and egg man. Being with a man over thirty was considered father time; if his daughter was a flapper, then he was a dapper, and if he had facial hair, he was a whiskbroom. If a man wasn’t particular intelligent, he was called a palooka, and if he was “prospecting” for a rich wife, he was a forty-niner.
It would quite difficult to find a decade that spawned more names and nicknames for males and females than the 20s. Why were there so many? Perhaps the drastic social changes, stemming from fashion and songs, which threw men and women together at bootlegged parties or eventful get-togethers led to an increase in gender-focused words. What is not unusual however, is the amount of slang words that describe appearance and stylishness for women. Though both sexes were judged by their looks quite a bit during this time, a lot more phrases were created to depict the level of attractiveness of women than men. This was, and still is, a leftover sentiment from previous decades and centuries , although it is a shame the revolutionary 20s didn’t manage to eradicate this traditional attitude.
By Maria Peltekova
Flapper Slang, Talk the 1920s Talk: http://kcts9.org/prohibition/flapper-slang-talk-1920s-talk
Writer’s Dreamtools: http://www.writersdreamtools.com/view/decades/default.asp?Decade=1920#slang
Molls and Dolls, 1920s Slang Dictionary: http://mollsanddolls.blogspot.com/2007/10/1920s-slang-dictionary.html