In the Limelight

Sandwiched between two World Wars, the 1920s was a time of both hope and despair. It is often thought of as a time with great prosperity and ongoing rural poverty. Wages were up and workers had more money to spend, especially on entertainment. For the first time, millions of commonplace Americans invested in the stock market as stock prices soared upwards. Yet after WWI, farm commodity prices fell dramatically and black sharecroppers in the South were scarcely surviving economically on an average wage. It was a very contradicting era as prohibition became the new law, woman gained the right to vote, and “talkies” first entered the entertainment scene.

People, especially young people, began expressing themselves with slang. Many phrases and terms of the 1920s are still used by people today, with examples like, “sweetheart,” “baby,” “dolled up,” and “giggle water...” okay, just kidding about the giggle water.

The term “tin pan alley” was created and used to reference the music industry in New York City, located between 48th and 52nd street. Though the term's origins are unclear, the most popular theory says that it was originally a derogatory reference to the sound made by many pianos all playing different tunes in this small urban area, producing a disharmony comparable to banging on tin pans. In time this nickname was widely embraced and it came to describe the U.S. music industry in general.

Considering this was the time of prohibition, many slang terms often reflected alcohol, drinking, and having a good time, especially since prohibition outlawed all of these things. Slang during this time also echoed the changing morals and ideas of society. For instance if someone was to say, “I have to go see a man about a dog,” that can be translated into someone going to buy whiskey.

An attractive female was referred to as a “sheba,” while their male counterparts were nicknamed a “shiek” or “daddy.” After drinking some “hooch,” or bootleg liquor, at a “speak-easy,” (a bar selling bootleg liquor) and feeling quite “spifflicated,” (drunk) the two might snuggle up for some “necking.” Hopefully, she won’t be a “dumb Dora” and tell her “crush” that “the banks closed!” This phrase refers to no kissing and the man taking his advances further.

Given the criminal nature of the 1920s, it should come as no surprise that much of the slang also refers to criminal activity. For instance if someone were to say to you, “Let’s hop in the “breezer and go for a ride,” you should not get into that man's convertible, as his intentions are to “bump you off,” or kill you. The police during this time were referred to as “fuzz,” “bull” or “dick.” If you were unfortunate enough be “double-crossed,” becoming a “fall guy” and “on the lam” (on the run), a “ducky” idea was to hide out, and “don’t take any wooden nickels.” Better translated to, “don’t do anything stupid.”

Other popular phrases were “now you’re on the trolley!” meaning “now you’ve got it!”; “drug store cowboy” – a man who hangs out trying to pick up girls on street corners; “fire extinguisher” – a chaperone; “horsefeathers!” – an expletive, just like “applesauce!”; “putting on the ritz” – doing something expensive, or in high style, refers to the Ritz hotel; “rag-a-muffin” – a disheveled individual; “rubes” – money; “torpedo” – a hired gun; “hotsy-totsy” – pleasing; “flapper” – a stylish, young woman with short skirts and shorter hair; and “Dapper” – a flapper’s father.