When we think to the Twenties, we’ll most likely think parties, bootleg booze, young people having fun, and the flappers. When we think of the sound of the Twenties, we’ll think jazz and the funny flappers’ slang.
Slang can be described as an informal and non-standard language used by a subculture in a particular society. It is strongly characteristic of that subculture, it allows the members of that group to recognise one another, very often it embodies attitudes and values of the group. Although it has to be widely accepted and adopted inside the group to have any chances to survive, slang has a tendency to be auto-referential.
Why is it used, then?
In his book, Flappers 2 Rappers, Tom Dalzell suggests there are three main reasons why – from the Twenties onward – young people used their own slang.
- Slang moves the level of the conversation toward the informal, so toward a freer, commune way of expression. It signals that people using the same slag belongs to the same group.
- Slang establishes status because it identifies people who belong and people who are outcasts.
- Very often, slang defies authority, and it’s oppositional, marking a resistance to the established authority.
The youth of the Twenties were the first to be considered a separate age entity and the first to have their own lingo, precisely for the reasons listed above.
Having their own way of expression and using words and phrases that were basically unintelligible to people of different ages was a way to strengthen the idea that they were different and powerful because they defined themselves.
This was a new social experience that attracted a lot of attention from the larger society to the point that some of that slang was appropriated by everyone trying to connect with young people: films, magazines, songs. Although nobody but flappers and their culture actually used that slang, some of its expression and its sounds became widely popular.
Why then, so little of that language survived the flapper culture, either as slang or standard colloquial English? The reason may rest in the flapper culture itself. Flappers tried too hard to be and sound different. Their forms of expression were extreme, like their behaviour, the language they used tried to break with the past so hard that it became artificial. When the flapper culture died out in the ashes of the Great Depression, a very different time began for everyone, included young people. The flapper slang faded with them.
You can find many different lists of the Twenties slang on the Internet, but this is my favourite one
THE INTERNET GUIDE TO JAZZ AGE SLANG
Britannica – What is slang?
Oxford Dictionary – Words from the 1920s
BuzzFeed – The A-Z’s of 1920s Slang
Tom Dalzell, Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang. Merriam-Webster, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1996
That internet guide looks like a fun list! I think adults still try to co-opt youth slang for marketing purposes, but it doesn’t go so well a lot of the time. 🙂
Slang is a very strange beast. What is cool one day, it’s old and backward the day after.
But that’s part of the fun too.
I still remember, and sometimes use, slangy language of ‘my time’ (the 1980s). Because I work in a university bookshop, I’m also in contact with new slang… the bit I can hear in a place like a bookshop.
There are so many things that, although not really slang, young people use today and we didn’t use yesterday.
Language is fun. And it’s alive, so it’s normal that it changes.
I have an old picture of my Grandmother looking like a Flapper. Priceless!
–Mee (The Chinese Quest)
I’m so envious! 🙂
Awww… I will try to scan it and could email it.
That would be so cool!!!! 🙂
Checked out the vocab list, what fun! I’ve heard some of these, but many are totally new. A few faves – “jorum of skee” (hard liquor) and “zozzled” (almost reaches onomonopeiea for being drunk) and an awesome image: petting pantry (movie theater). Always entertaining and enlightening.
Before starting researching my novel, I didn’t have a clue about Twenties slang. But it’s really fun 🙂
Mimesis Heidi Dahlsveen
Thank you for your comment on my blog, and love the style of your blog! And the flapper, never heard about it before – great.
Best from Heidi in Norway!
Hi Heidi, thanks for stopping by 🙂
Well, before I started reserching Twenties America, I hadn’t hear about flappers either. I don’t even think there is an Italian word for them.
A lot of people use the expression falling off the wagon to talk about any bad behavior they want to avoid. I heard women say they fell off the wagon by eating a box of chocolates when they were supposed to be on a diet. So even though the slang might have one original meaning, I think people in each generation my tweak it slightly to their own group dynamics and interests.
Well, as all languages, slang is a living thing and so obviously it changes over time. Especially these idioms, I think.
Isn’t it interesting learning how idioms came into being?
Slang and lingo have been around for ages. It’s so cool to see how its shaped society. I still think the cat’s pajamas and the bee’s knees are awesome phrases, lol.
The flappers’ slang is sure one of the most funny I’ve ever heard 🙂
Very interesting article on slang and something that I, as a writer, find useful and thought provoking. Now, I can try to figure out how to incorporate slang into a novel without over-doing it. It’s all a balancing act, isn’t it?
Incorporating era slang into a story is aways tricky, because yes, you have to find the right balance between giving a flavour of the era and not making the reading cumbersome. And you also have to be consistent.
Then, you also have characters who are more likely to use slang and others who are less likely to use it.
Fun, isn’t it? 😉
Love the vid – so much gangster slang that I’m pretty sure I learned from 70s TV shows 🙂
Tasha’s Thinkings | Wittegen Press | FB3X (AC)
Oh, as I understand it, much of the gang slang which started in the Twenties is still in use. And much of it started as African American slang.
I am endlessly entertained by flapper slang 😀 It is like a whole other language… Why is this not included in English classes, I wonder?…
Multicolored Diary – Epics from A to Z
MopDog – 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary
Silent movies are loaded with flapper slang. Sometimes, it takes me some thinking to get it. But yes, it’s fun 🙂
I didn’t know about 20s slang, that was interesting. Love the fact that gay slang, ‘polari’ was used on the BBC radio programme ‘Round the Horn’ by two camp characters – they said really rather rude things but people were so innocent in those days they had no idea. What fun!
Well, the Twenties were certainly a politically incorrect time 😉
I love reading about slang. It really is an important part to each generation’s identity, even now.