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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! 

By
Susanna Calkins, Writing for
4-minute read

Interestingly, in 1925, Ada Lewis, a self-proclaimed “mistress of modern slang,” wrote a piece for "The Washington Post" comparing the “Jargon of the Juveniles,” from Grandma, Mother, and Daughter. She even provided a helpful chart which, if accurate, certainly helps explain the words and phrases when two are compared with the third:

Grandma

Mother

Daughter

Charmer

Vamp

Red-hot mama

Hot air

Spoofing

Apple sauce

Wall flower

Dead one

Flat tire

Heart breaker

Lady killer

Sheik

The laugh

Merry ha-ha

Raspberries

Dude

Sport

Cake-eater

Four-flusher

Sponge

Lounge-lizard

Sparking

Spooning

Petting

Cutie

Chicken

Flapper

Good for you!

Bully!

Attaboy!

Quit yer kiddin’

Lay off

Be yourself

Up stage

Putting on the dog

Ritzy

Ah, there

O you kiddo!

Hot dog!

The goods

The cheese

Cat’s meow

Guy

Poor simp

Poor fish

Beat it

Skiddoo

Ankle along

Poor sport

Tight-wad

Cheap skate

Similar explanations and definitions of slang continued to appear regularly in the country’s newspapers. Even more interesting, in 1926 William Craigie, a professor at the University of Chicago, began to work on the Dictionary of American English, collecting millions of slips of paper “from layman and students” alike, that detailed descriptions of the meanings of words. (This work was published over a decade later, in four volumes). While Craigie was not intentionally seeking out slang, he acknowledged to "The Boston Globe" that “a small percentage of the slang of one generation will be the usual speech of the next and will in the end become a natural part of the written language.”

By the end of the decade, other smaller dictionaries of slang had appeared, often more informational in tone. For example in 1928 Frank Wilstach, the author of A Dictionary of Similes,  created a dictionary of motion picture slang that helps explain the language of the “talkies.” Some of these terms were new to the industry, but others came out of the older tradition of live theater. These include such phrases as “America’s sweetheart” (referring to actress Mary Pickford); a “bust” (when a picture doesn’t do well); “in sync” (sound and action perfectly timed in a “talky”); “kill the lights” (turn out the lights); and “hit the deck,” (when electricians come down after working on electric lights above the set.) 

These commentaries collectively allude to the tensions around slang, and the need to defend it against those purists who lament its use. As Glenn Frank noted in a 1926 article for "The Washington Post,"

“Slang is by no means the cultural sin it is sometimes branded. The slang of everyday life is a rich source of new words. Slang is language in the making. Slang is the sign of life in a language. Slang is imagination at work in words. Our mother tongue would become a septic and stagnant pool if slang did not pour fresh streams into it.”

In other words,  1920s slang is the bee’s knees!

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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.