The 1920s Fascination with Slang

Susanna Calkins, author of the "Lucy Campion Historical Mysteries" and "Speakeasy Murders," discusses the slang of the 1920s and how it affected culture, conversation, and even dictionaries! 

Susanna Calkins, Writing for
4-minute read

Throughout the 1920s, the public was fascinated, if a bit confused, by the slang that was steadily seeping into the American parlance from all directions. In newspapers across the country,  commentators wrote hundreds of articles and editorials seeking to enlighten readers about the meaning of words spoken by “College Joes,” cops and ex-servicemen, prize fighters and baseball players, railway workers and taxi drivers, flappers and gangsters, jazz singers and musicians, and even circus performers.

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These commentaries are mostly light-hearted, written tongue-in-cheek by outsiders trying to explain the argots of others.  Yet, a sense of confusion and puzzlement underlies many of these explanations as well.  This may be because so much slang of the period was indeed nonsense (“elephant’s manicure,” “oyster’s earrings,” ”snake’s hips,” etc.), which was part of the larger trend of meaninglessness and absurdity that followed the devastation of the First World War.

Not surprising, the disconnect is also generational—an uneasiness towards the modern flapper who sought to upend traditional expectations around womanhood and sexuality. Slang words and phrases associated with dating, such as “blind date,” “petting,” “necking,” and “petting parlors” (movie theaters) were regularly discussed with amusement and, one can imagine, a slightly arched eyebrow.

1920s slang is the bee’s knees!

An early example of this generational confusion is “Sunday Morning Breakfast,” a humorous piece by Rob Fukerson that appeared in the "Detroit Free Press" in 1922.  The scenario describes a father desperately trying to make sense of the conversation that his daughter Lucy, a flapper, is having with his son. Lucy has been reading the social pages, and has wondered out loud how a rather dull friend of hers has managed to get engaged.

Only his daughter didn’t use those words; what she actually said was that her friend’s fiancé is “some darb she picked up at a jazz jamboree. Her regular monog was away some place and she had this strike breaker doing her corn cracking at a party and hooked him. I always thought she was a permanent flat tire, but she vamped him in a dance and then had a conservative petting party with him and now he is going to be a permanent meal ticket. The father just stammers and stares. His children basically laugh at him, and continue to use slang that only confuses him more.  The implication is that the father will never really understand their words.


About the Author

Susanna Calkins, Writing for Grammar Girl

Susanna Calkins became fascinated with seventeenth century England while pursuing her doctorate in British history and uses her fiction to explore this chaotic period. Originally from Philadelphia, Calkins now lives outside of Chicago with her husband and two sons. "A Murder at Rosamund's Gate" is her first novel.