The past few posts have focused more on single-word slang terms of the 1920s, mainly because there was an extraordinary amount of them. However, there were also quite a few intriguing expressions that arose from this decade, and though a few were mentioned before, it’s necessary to highlight some of the more peculiar phrases.
“23 Skidoo” is one of the expressions that became immensely popular during the 20s. Its meaning is clear: to get away, to scram, despite the fact that its origins are quite dubious. Speculations come from a variety of sources, though most of them do agree that “skidoo” is a shortened version of “skedaddle” or “scuttle.” The number part is more disputed: it either caught on from the limited number of horses in a race, a possible shorthand code, books, or even the number of saloons in the mining town ofSkidoo. Whatever the reason, 23 was soon matched with skidoo and the phrase was born.
Similarly, “the cat’s meow” also has many possible origins, as do its cousins ‘the cat’s pajama’s,” “the cat’s whiskers,” and “cool cat.” They all signify the same thing: to be stylish, wonderfully new, and self-assured. But why the near-obsession with cats during the 20s? The expressions are similar to other animal ones, like the “bee’s knees” or the “duck’s quack,” both also meaning to be impressive and fashionable. Perhaps cats suddenly appeared to be in vogue at the time and presented an interesting choice of words. Whatever the reason for the feline appreciation, the phrases are still used today, if for no other reason than to intrigue wordsmiths.
Trendy expressions also tended to be rhyming ones, such as “having the heebie-jeebies,” still very popular in modern times, and meaning to be apprehensive or afraid. It’s a nonsensical compilation of words, and neither “heebie” nor “jeebie” mean anything on their own. Yet when William Morgan “Billy” de Beck coined the term in his cartoon featured in The New York American, the term caught on and quickly circulated. The same can be said for the phrase “monkey see, monkey do,” also used today. It is thought to migrated to theUS fromJamaica, and before that fromMali folklore inWest Africa. What gives such rapid and lasting popularity to these terms and not others? I can assume that these phrases caught on in the 20s because of their initial novelty and youthful nature, and they lasted because of the rhymes and memorable structure. “23 Skidoo” isn’t as use in the modern vernacular as “heebie-jeebies,” and while both are peculiar enough to be considered fashionable during the 20s, only one has enough rhyme and rhythm to propel it forward into the future.
It does make one wonder if all expressions only last because of their easy ability to roll off the tongue. At least, it seems that many phrases were coined because of that same reason. It explains the reason that “drugstore cowboy” isn’t in the modern slang dictionary, though the meaning can still be applicable today. It originated when movie stars dressed as cowboys would walk into stores or bars still in their costumes and is generally used for anyone who isn’t truly what they pretend to be. It’s a very interesting expression and quite fitting forHollywood, though a shame “drugstore cowboy” could not continue its legacy.
By Maria Peltekova
The Phrase Finder: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/393450.html
The Word Wizard: http://www.wordwizard.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=4968
The Phrase Finder: http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/heebie-jeebies.html
Book Brose: http://www.bookbrowse.com/wordplay/archive/detail/index.cfm?wordplay_number=207
Writers’ Dreamtools: http://www.writersdreamtools.com/view/decades/default.asp?Decade=1920#slang