The Mooky guide to jazz-age slang
by Magda Knight
Language changes all the time, but the late 1920s and 1930s were a period of music, poverty, alcohol and sexual freedom - creative, dangerous times. And oh boy, did the slang move around a little! Grab some moxy, add a little jazz age colour to your life, and everything'll be just peachy keen...
If you have a look at Jazz Age slang, you'll start really noticing one or two things.
Jazz age women
Firstly, in jazz age slang there are about a thousand ways to describe women of varying degrees of attractiveness/age/sanity. Skirts were coming up (think of the 1920s flappers), make-up was being plastered on, women were taking on more work (in the Depression everyone in the family needed to work, not just the men) and modern urban women were starting to measure their lives by the amount of fun had rather than the number of legitimate sons birthed. Yep, women were beginning to flaunt themselves as an expression of freedom after the dour Edwardian age, and men were beginning to sit up and notice. Women could be 'baby vamps' (hot young girls), or 'tomatos' (er, ripe), or 'bug-eyed Betties' (er, ugly). Mookychick has included all these words because we think it's nice to big up your girlfriends by describing them as 'a choice bit of calico', and we don't think it's nice to be rude about women, but hey, if we don't list the disses too, we're not being comprehensive and well-rounded about this, are we?
Jazz age music
People were beginning to get seriously interracial in the 1920s and 30s, leading to some exciting musical and cultural cross-pollination (always the sign of a healthy society). Black musicians were finally coming into their own, and headlining joints, and being namechecked in 'polite' company. Brass music, like the horn and the saxophone, was exciting and liberating. So whites and blacks were hanging out together, impressed by each other, swapping names and back-chat. Only black people said 'daddy-o', so of course the white people who loved their music and culture started saying it too...
In the earlier 1920s the first raves were also beginning to happen. These were all-night jazz parties where drug usage occured, usually held in warehouses down by the docks, and often had involvement with the Chinese as there was an influx of chinese sailors and immigrants forced to live in the poorer dockyard areas round about this time. Suddenly, men and women were taking opium and cocaine, dancing madly and having interracial relationships all over the place. Believe it or not, dancing without a partner was very risque (because it meant you could do some rather strange dancing, and also suggested you were keeping yourself open for lots of partners, if you get our meaning). So if a girl was dancing well, you would tell her... 'Get hot! Get hot!'. And oh man, that's sexy. This is the kind of language we want to bring back...
Jazz age drinking
Okay, so you had the Depression. You had speakeasies where illegal drinking went on. You had people brewing noxious and potentially lethal alcohol in their bathtubs. The Jazz Age had a million words for simply everything to do with drinking, from 'panther sweat' (whisky) to 'coffin varnish' (illegal, bootleg liquor) to 'screaming meemies' (getting the shakes. Which you'd probably do if you were hungover or had just drunk a friend's illegal home-brew).
Jazz age taboos
What is boils down to is this: there's nothing like a taboo to get slang up and running. If you're breaking a social taboo, you want to be covert - you want to make friends with others who are breaking the same taboo, and you want to shut out the people who aren't, so they don't spoil your fun. A taboo is a social constraint dictated by whatever the cultural values are at the time. So if you're drinking illegally, or being promiscuous, or hanging out with 'undesirables', or into underground music - to some extent you're breaking a taboo. And that's what the Jazz Age was all about, daddy-o...
Okay, now it's time for some slang!
And how! : I strongly agree!
Attaboy/Attagirl! : You go, boyfriend/girfriend!
Cat's meow : great ("This deal is the cat's meow!" Can also use "the cat's pyjamas" or "the bee's knees")
Jake : great, ie. "Everything's Jake."
Know one's onions: to know one's business or what one is talking about
Peachy keen: super-fine and amazing
Ritzy: Glam, good, special. "Putting on the Ritz." "Oh my, she sure looks ritzy."
Real McCoy: a genuine item
Sand, grit, moxy : good stuff. Balls. Gumption. Eg. 'Hey baby, you've got sand/grit/moxy'
You slay me!: That's funny!
JAZZ AGE UNDERGROUND MUSIC
Daddy-o : a way of addressing pretty much anyone, especially if they're a guy. Was initially only used by black people, until white people caught the bug.
Get Hot! Get Hot! : encouragement for a hot dancer doing her thing
Lollapalooza : a humdinger, a really special thing (Ha! Even the ultimate indie-rawk music fest rates jazz age slang!)
JAZZ AGE DRINKING
Panther sweat: whisky
Screaming meemies: the shakes
JAZZ AGE WOMEN
Baby vamp : a hot young woman
Barn burner : a classy, stylish woman
Bearcat : a hot: blooded, fiery girl
Bug-eyed Betty : unattractive girl, minger
Choice bit of calico : attractive female, usually young, usually a student
Dumb Dora : an absolute idiot, a dumbbell, especially a woman
Glad rags: 'going out on the town' clothes
Munitions: face powder
JAZZ AGE MEN
Hard-boiled : tough, as in a tough guy: "He sure is hard-boiled"
JAZZ AGE POVERTY
Heavy sugar : a lot of money
Mrs. Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle (Film. Esteemed poetess and journalist Dorothy Parker remembers the heyday of the Algonquin Round Table, a circle of friends whose barbed wit, like hers, was fueled by alcohol and flirted with despair.)
Bright Young Things (Film. An adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel "Vile Bodies," is a look into the lives of a young novelist, his would-be lover, and a host of young people who beautified London in the 1930s.)
Bugsy Malone (Film. A Depression-era gangster movie where all the gangsters are children. )
Jazz age links:
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@MagdaKnight is the Co-Founding Editor of Mookychick. Her YA fiction and other writings have been published in anthologies and in 2000AD. She likes you already, so Email her and say hi, or visit her blog. She is on Google+.