Friday, March 1, 2013

The Power of Slang

Slang, the informal words and phrases in common usage, is essential to setting the era and creating tone in your writing.  Knowing the correct terms for the time period enables a writer to construct realistic settings, create authentic characters and strengthen their credibility as a writer.

I am currently reading a novel set in the 1920s-era recently completed by fellow blogger Jenny Leo. From the first paragraph, Jenny’s characters spring to life amid the chaos and excitement of The Roaring Twenties in 20th century America. Obviously, Jenny did her homework.

Creating a world in correct historical context demands herculean effort.  In order to create that world for her readers – to make it real – Jenny thoroughly investigated the “who, what, when, where, why and how,” of life during the 1920s.  She learned how they addressed one another and the fashion of the day.  She researched what type of transportation folks used, what foods they ate, their customs, what games and entertainment they enjoyed, who was famous, world events, and how folks in 1920s Chicago talked – their slang.

Writers today are lucky to have the Internet at hand.  It is a phenomenal research tool.  Just type in most any phrase or question and websites pop up by the thousands, if not millions.  The only downside is getting lost in the overwhelming amount of background information you'll discover.  Past that bugaboo, researching on the Internet is like a treasure hunt – you never know what you’ll find.     

Just type in “slang of the 1920s,” and over one million sites pop up, compiled by enthusiasts and historians of every degree.  As with every era, dozens of terms came into use during the Roaring Twenties.  While some of these terms disappeared through the years, others remain in common use today.  With a little investigation, you’ll discover the perfect words to add spice and authenticity to your work.    

1920s slang still in use:
Baloney - nonsense! 
Cat's Meow (Cat’s pajamas) - something splendid or stylish
Corked, tanked, primed, jazzed, plastered, embalmed,  or lit – drunk.
Dead soldier - an empty beer bottle 
Glad rags - "going out on the town" clothes 
Piker - (1) a cheapskate (2) a coward
Putting on the Ritz - for the Ritz Hotel in Paris; doing something in high style         
Wet Blanket - a solemn person, a killjoy
What's eating you? - what's wrong
You slay me - that's funny

1920s slang that disappeared through time:
Applesauce- an expletive same as horsefeathers; as in "Ah applesauce!"
Bank's Closed - no kissing or making out - i.e. - "Sorry, Mac, the bank's closed." 
Bee's Knees - an extraordinary person, thing, idea; the ultimate
Breezer - a convertible car 
Butt me - I'll take a cigarette 
Flivver - a Model T; after 1928, could mean any old broken down car 
Mrs. Grundy - a priggish or extremely tight-laced person
"Now you're on the trolley!" - now you've got it, now you're right
Spifflicated, corked, scrooched, zozzled, owled, ossified or fried to the hat - drunk
Struggle Buggy - the backseat of a car. A parent's worst nightmare.

Hmm ... 1920s: struggle buggy; 1970s: shaggin’ wagon – some things never change – but you still have to know the correct terminology or you will lose your reader. 

One helpful website I found,, is, like, totally awesome.  Just click on “History by Decades,” and you’ll find a cultural history for New Slang Words for every decade from 1650 to the present.  It's groovy, man!  Other lists include: Events, Who’s ‘In’, Who Died, Bad Guys, What’s ‘In’, Entertainment, Music, Literature, Art, Fashion & Beauty, Media, Money, Religion, and Science.  I promise, it's wicked cool.  

Although the Internet is fast and vast, don’t forget other resources including personal interviews; books on the subject of slang; or books, movies, newspapers, and magazines from each era.  A trip to the library will undoubtedly benefit your research.  Some libraries have special local history and/or genealogical sections where older works are housed.  Some museums also allow research of their archived material, but most require an appointment, so be sure to check first before you head out. 

And don’t forget to take a new look at those old "fact" books you still have sitting on your shelves.  One of my favorites: “Dr. Chase’s RECIPES of INFORMATION for EVERYBODY: Enlarged and Improved by R. A. Beal.  The title page reads: An invaluable collection of about eight hundred Practical Recipes For: Merchants, Grocers, Saloon-Keepers, Physicians, Druggists, Tanners, Shoemakers, Harness Makers, Painters, Jewelers, Blacksmiths, Tinners, Gunsmiths, Farriers, Barbers, Bakers, Dyers, Renovators, Farmers, and Families Generally.

From recipes for making Sham-Champagne – A Purely Temperance Drink, to How to Cure the Vapors, this tattered tome of home remedies offers a peek into the life of real people living in the 1880s; and invaluable terminology for a writer.

One word of warning, don’t trust your memory too far.  You may have lived through the early 1980s, but do you really remember what year home computers became popular or whether or not anyone had cell phones back then?  What television shows were popular, what movies, what bands were playing and what were the big stories of the day?  Trusting your memory may be a shortcut to a mistake that could have been avoided.  

Now let’s have some fun.  In what decade would the following sentences have been said?  Try to figure out the correct decade yourself, but if you have trouble, try the Internet for the answer.  Good luck, and May the Force Be With You. (1977)

Hey, don’t have a cow, man.  It’s a bummer that your foxy mama freaked out.  Chill.   

If you want to be a hep cat, the next time you flap your lips, use some of these slang terms, and you will be cooking with gas.


Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

Fab and groovy.

Jennifer Rova said...

Great post for learning. Not only did I learn some definitions of slang terms but also you shared several good resources. Thanks!