Spiffy Slang Words and Phrases from the 1920s

June 22, 2020  - by 

Wouldn’t it be swell to travel back in time to the 1920s America? Maybe you could grill an ancestor and get them to sing (that means “talk” in 1920s lingo!). But be sure you know your onions! We can help you with that. Read ahead to learn some popular 1920s slang and sayings so you don’t sound like a sap.

When you’re finished learning 1920s slang, test your family friends on these slang words (and discover any fun family sayings!) and audio record their reactions!

Doll: 1920s Slang for Woman

The term “doll” was used to describe a pretty young woman in the 1920s, but it had been a term used as early as the 1550s when it began as a shortened form of “Dorothy.”

Cool Cat: 1920s Slang for a Hip Man

My Uncle John was one cool cat! The American 1920s slang phrase “cool cat” likely got its origin in the Jazz community. The Jazz Age of the 1920s greatly influenced American slang with other words and phrases such as an “Oliver Twist.” An Oliver Twist was an extremely good dancer that could really cut a rug (hey look, more 1920s lingo!).

jazz band from the 1920s

Cutting a rug derives its meaning from when couples would dance the jitterbug. When the dance was performed in one area for a long period of time, it would make the carpet appear as though it was cut, hence the 1920s slang cut a rug.

Bathtub Gin: 1920s Lingo for Homemade Liquor

The American prohibition lasted throughout the 1920s, making people a little more creative in making and distributing liquor. That’s where terms like bathtub gin, speakeasies, and bootleggers became popular 1920s terms.

prohibition agents destroying alcohol

Bathtub gin was slang for homemade liquor that could be made in the bathtub. Bootleggers, the transporters of the alcohol, would stock the illegal establishments, called speakeasies, with all sorts of homemade drinks, including this famous bathtub gin.

A speakeasy, also sometimes called a blind pig or blind tiger, was a place to sell illegal alcoholic beverages. In the U.S., the term speakeasy emerged in the 1880s. These illegal places of business were called speakeasies because people would need to speak quietly about such a place so that authorities wouldn’t be tipped off.

Other similar phrases were the cat’s meow, the cat’s whiskers, the tiger’s spots, and the elephant’s adenoids! These silly animal pairings seem to have been quite popular in 1920s slang.

Gold Digger: 1920s Lingo for a Woman Who Marries a Man for His Money

young woman and man in room together

Gold-digger is the perfect example of an idiom, which is a group of words that has a figurative meaning instead of a literal one. The 1920s slang phrase “gold digger” was made popular by the 1929 Broadway show titled The Gold Diggers of Broadway in which three chorus girls seek rich husbands.

Gams and Dogs: 1920s Slang for Legs and Feet

“Will you look at the gams on that doll,” said Howard to Dean. Howard was obviously referring to a woman’s nice-looking legs! But, where in the world did that 1920s saying come from? There are two lines of thought about the origin of the word “gams” referring to legs. One traces it to the Italian word “gamba,” meaning leg. Another theory believes the word comes from “gamb,” meaning the representation of a leg on a coat of arms.

Speaking of legs, are your dogs barking? Maybe after a hard day at work on the factory floor? “Dogs” was a 1920s slang word for feet. When people said their dogs were barking, they were referring to the fact that their feet were hurting. This 1920s phrase actually appeared in print in 1913 when a journalist for the New York Evening, T. A. Dorgan, used the term “dog” to represent his foot. He was well known for his rhyming slang, and this little diddy stuck.

The Bee’s Knees: 1920s Saying for Outstanding

This funny phrase was actually first recorded in the 1700s. It was used to refer to something small and insignificant. But by the 1920s, the bee’s knees referred to something thought to be outstanding!

Young girl from 1920s

1920s Slang Challenge

Now that you are the Big Cheese with 1920s slang and lingo, don’t lollygag around all day. Challenge your family—especially your parents and grandparents—to see if they recognize any of these phrases or have any fun family sayings of their own.

To participate in the challenge, download the FamilySearch Memories app, and sign in to your FamilySearch account (or create a free account if you don’t have one). Once in the Memories app, click the microphone icon, and then click the plus icon in the bottom right corner to record audio. When you’re finished recording, don’t forget to tag the memory under “1920s Slang.”

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Amie Tennant

Amie Bowser Tennant is a genealogy researcher, writer and presenter.She writes blog articles and other content for many top companies and societies in the genealogy field. Her most treasured experience is working as a consultant for family history. Amie lives with her husband and three children in Ohio, surrounded by many of her extended family.

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Comments

  1. Often older people will not recognise that what they are saying is slang – what they say is just part of their language. So it will be necessary for younger people to engage their older relatives in light hearted conversation and actually listen and respond, then recognise the use of phrases that they are unfamiliar with.

    1. John, I completely agree. I might also add, when I write in my journal and if I use slang terms, I try to write a definition of what it means in parenthesis. I do the same when I talk about things like an ipad, iphone, google, etc!

  2. “Do you savy” my grand-daughter asked what does this mean. Do you understand what I am saying I replied? but where does it come from ????

    1. The Spanish verb “saber” means “to know”. The statement “He doesn’t know” translates as “No sabe”. In Spanish, the letter “b” is pronounced much like “v”, so that would sound close to “no SAHV-eh”. Western Americans picked that up, but the vowel changed to the more common short-a as in “cat”, and we got the word “savvy”.