Ladies and Fellas, Grab a Sinker & a Joe – It’s Time to Learn Some Swell Slang!

It’s funny how much slang changes from generation to generation; sometimes in listening to my 19 year old sister, I already find myself feeling out of touch. When working on a period show like Rope it is important to have a sense of the slang from the time, both to understand the text and to help with improvising. I came across an amazing list of 1920s & 30s slang and couldn’t resist sharing it here; I think it’s time we bring some of these back, they really are the bee’s knees.

*Original post found at
Flapperspeak: Dictionary of Words From the 1920’s and 1930’s
From the AACA Potpourri website and Mark McCutcheon’s Writer’s Guide To Everyday Life From Prohibition Through World War II

Ab-so-lute-ly – affirmative
All six, hit on – to hit on all six cylinders, 100% percent performance
All wet – describes an erroneous idea or individual, as in, “he’s all wet.”
And how – I strongly agree!
And howl – emphatic response like, “You said it!”
Applesauce – an expletive same as horsefeathers, As in “Ah applesauce!”
Attaboy – well done!; also Attagirl!
Baby – sweetheart. Also denotes something of high value or respect.
Baby vamp – attractive female usually used by college boys – other terms include: angel, thrill, bird, liveone, peach, choice bit of calico, sweet patootie, panic
Balled Up – confused, messed up
Baloney – nonsense!
Bank’s Closed – no kissing or making out – i.e. – “Sorry, Mac, the bank’s closed.”
Barb – college student that was not part of a fraternity
Barleycorn, John – popular personification of bootleg alcohol – this term was used throughout Prohibition
Barrel House – illegal alcohol distillation plant
Bearcat – a hot-blooded or fiery girl
Beat it – scram or get lost
Beat one’s gums – idle chatter
Bee’s knees – extraordinary person, thing, idea; the ultimate also “Cat’s Meow”
Beef – a complaint or to complain
Beeswax – business, i.e. None of your beeswax.”
Bell bottom – a sailor
Bent – drunk, ossified
Berries – That which is attractive or pleasing; similar to bee’s knees, as in “It’s the berries.”
Bible Belt – Area in the South and Midwest where Fundamentalism flourishes
Big six – a strong man; from auto advertising, for the new and powerful; six cylinder engines
Bimbo – a tough guy
Bird – general term for a man or woman, sometimes meaning strange or odd
Blind Pig – place where illegal alcohol was served, like a speakeasy. Blind Pigs had deceptive or “blank” fronts –often were in basements, behind peep-holed doors or in the back of legitimate businesses
Blocker –Southern term for moonshiner or bootlegger
Blotto – drunk, ossified, bent
Bluenose – An excessively puritanical person, a prude
Bohunk – derogatory term to describe a central European immigrant (used from 1900-1930)
Bootleg – illegal liquor also called busthead
Breezer – a convertible car
Brown – Bootlegger’s term for whiskey
Brown plaid – bootlegger’s term for Scotch
Bubs – women’s breasts (used as description from 1900 on)
Bug-eyed Betty – unattractive or unpopular girl, often this term was used by college boys – other 1920’s slang include: pig’s coattail, washout, mess, flat tire, chunk of lead, crumb
Bull – (1) a policeman or law-enforcement officer including FBI (2) nonsense (3) to chat idly, to exaggerate
Bull Session – Male talkfest, gossip, stories of sexual exploits
Bum’s Rush – ejection by force from an establishment
Bump Off – to murder or kill
Bunny- term that conveys sympathy and endearment for lost or confused person
Bus – old, worn out big vehicle (used from 1915 onwards)
Bushwa – softer version of bull shit also spelled booshwash
Butterfly’s boots, the – anyone or anything that is great or dreamy like the cat’s meow
Cake-eater – a ladies’ man
Canned – drunk, ossified, bent
Caper – a criminal act or robbery
Carry a torch – To have a crush on someone
Cash – a kiss
Cash or check? – Do you kiss now or later?
Cast a kitten – to have a fit
Cat’s meow – Something splendid or stylish, similar to bee’s knees; the best or greatest, wonderful.
Cat’s pajamas – Same as cat’s meow or cat’s whiskers or gnat’s eyebrows
Chase yourself, go -get lost (from 1900 onwards)
Chassis – the female body from 1930
Cheaters – Eyeglasses
Check – kiss me later
Chewing gum – double talk
Copacetic – Wonderful, fine, all right
Coffin varnish – bootleg or homemade alcohol, also called horse liniment, stuff, and tarantula juice
Crush – An infatuation
Daddy – a young woman’s boyfriend or lover, especially if he’s rich
Dame – a female (term used since 1900, gained wide use in the 1930’s and 1940’s)
Dapper – a Flapper’s dad
Darb – An excellent person or thing (as in “the Darb” – a person with money who can be relied on to pay the check)
Dead soldier – an empty beer bottle
Deb – a debutante
Dick – a private investigator
Doll – an attractive woman
Dolled up – dressed up
Dope – drugs
Double-cross – to cheat, stab in the back
Dough – money
Drag – college dance
Dry – person who is against drinking and for Prohibition
Dry up – shut up, get lost
Dumb Dora – a stupid female also called Dumbbell
Earful – enough
Eel’s hips – variation of cat’s meow
Edge – intoxication, a buzz
Egg – a person who lives the big life

Ethel – effeminate man

Fag – before 1920, a cigarette, after 1920, a cigarette or effeminate man
Fella – guy
Fire extinguisher – a chaperone
Fish -(1) a college freshman also can be a first timer in prison
Flapper –free-spirited young woman
Flat tire – a dull, insipid, disappointing date. Also known as a pill, pickle, drag, rag, oil can
Flivver – a Model T; after 1928, could mean any old broken down car
Flapper – A stylish, brash, hedonistic young woman with short skirts & shorter hair
Fly boy – a glamorous term for an aviator
Fried – drunk, ossified, bent
Frosh –first year student at college
Gay – happy
Giggle water – an intoxicating beverage; alcohol
Gin mill – An establishment where hard liquor is sold; bar
Glad rags – “going out on the town” clothes
Gold digger – A woman who associates with or marries a man for his wealth
Goods, the – the desired material
Goof – stupid bumbling person
Goon – hoodlum
Hair of the dog – a shot of alcohol
Half seas over – thoroughly drunk also known as “half under”
Heel – scoundrel
He-man – a masculine man
Hayburner – (1) a gas guzzling car (2) a horse one loses money on
Heebie-jeebies – The jitters, anxiety
High-hat – To snub or a snob
Hip – savvy –used since 1915
Hip flask – small container used to carry alcohol, hidden by the hip or in a big pocket –fad item in 1920’s
Hit on all sixes – to perform 100 per cent; as “hitting on all six cyclinders”
Hokey-Pokey – inexpensive candy or ice cream for children
Hooch – Bootleg liquor
Hooey – nonsense
Hoofer – Dancer
Horsefeathers – an expletive; same usage as applesauce
Hotsy – totsy – pleasing
Hurdy-gurdy – a hand organ often played in the streets
It – sex appeal
Iron – a motorcycle
Jack – money
Jake – all is is okay, as in, “Everything is Jake.”
Jalopy – Old car
Jane – any female
Java – coffee
Jitney – a car employed as a private bus. Fare was usually five cents; also called a “nickel”

Joe – coffee

Joe Brooks – someone who is fashionably dressed
Joe Zilch – any male college student also known as Joe College or Joe Yale
John – a toilet
Joint – an establishment
Juice joint – a speakeasy
Joint – A club, usually selling alcohol, also called speakeasy, club, juice joint
Kale – money
Keen – Attractive or appealing
Knock-up – get pregnant not on purpose
Know One’s Onions – know what you are talking about
Lady legger – female bootlegger
Lam, on the – running away from the police
Lay off – knock it off
Level with me – be honest
Line – Insincere flattery
Live wire – a lively person – wild
Milquetoast – timid, mild person
Mind your own potatoes – mind your own business
Moonshine – bootleg alcohol
Neck – Kissing with passion
Nifty – great, excellent
Ofay – African American term to describe white people
Old Boy – male term to address other men also “Old man”
On the lam – fleeing from police
On the level – legitimate, honest
On the up and up – on the level
Ossified – a drunk person
Owl – a person who’s out late
Palooka – (1) a below-average or average boxer (2) a social outsider, from the comic strip character Joe Palooka
Pet – Same as neck, but more so
Piker – (1) a cheapskate (2) a coward
Pill – (1) a teacher (2) an unlikable person
Pin – announce an engagement or agreement to be serious by giving or receiving a sweetheart’s fraternity pin
Pinch – To arrest
Pinko – liberal
Pip – extraordinary person or thing, sometimes used sarcastically
Prom-trotter – gregarious student who attends school social functions and likes to dance
Putting on the Ritz – after the Ritz hotel in Paris; doing something in high style
Quiff – cheap prostitute
Rag-a-muffin – a dirty or disheveled individual
Razz – to make fun of or take the piss out of, heckle
Ritzy – Elegant (from the hotel)
Rub – student dance party
Rube – hick
Rummy – drunk, alcoholic
Rush – try to get into a fraternity
Sap – a fool
Says you – a reaction of disbelief
Scratch – money
See a man about a dog, have to – phrase to describe “I need to leave now”, often referring to going out and buying bootleg whiskey
Sheba – A woman with sex appeal (from the move Queen of Sheba) or (e.g. Clara Bow)
Sheik – A man with sex appeal (from the Valentino movies)
Shiv – a knife
Sinker – a doughnut
Sitting pretty – in a great position
Snake’s hips – cat’s whiskers or bee’s knees
Snoot full, have a – to be drunk
Snuggle pup – teenager term for a sweetheart who likes to cuddle
Sockdollager – knock out punch
So’s Your Old Man – reply showing irritation from 1915 onwards
Speakeasy – Irish word to describe an illicit, undercover bar selling bootleg liquor also called blind pig and scatter
Spifflicated – Drunk. The same as canned, corked, tanked, primed, scrooched, jazzed, zozzled, plastered,owled, embalmed, lit, potted, ossified or fried to the hat
Spoon – to neck, or at least talk of love
Stuck On – infatuated, in love with
Struggle buggy – the backseat of a car (where young couples made out)
Stuck On – Having a crush on
Swanky – Ritzy
Swell – Wonderful. Also: a rich man – more in later 1930’s
Talkies – movies with sound
Tin Pan Alley – the music industry in New York, located between 48th and 52nd street
Tomato – a female
Toot, on a – drinking spree
Up and up – on the level, legitimate
Wet – stupid, unsophisticated also can be someone who is against Prohibition and for the legalization of alcohol
Wet Blanket – a solemn person, a killjoy
Whisper Sister – female proprietor of a speakeasy
Whoopee – To have a good time
Wife – affectionate term to describe college dorm roommate
Wooden nickels, don’t take any – a fad expression of 1920, that meant “don’t do anything stupid – takecare of yourself.”
Bleary-eyed, bent, blind, blotto, boiled, boiled as an owl, burning with a blue flame, canned, corked, corned, crocked, edged, embalmed, fried, four sheets in the wind, full, ginned, half-cocked, half seas over, half-screwed, half-shot, happy, high, hoary-eyed, jazzed, jingle, lathered, liquored, lit, lit up like a Christmas tree, lit up like a store window, lit up like the commonwealth, loaded, loaded for beer, loaded to the muzzle, lubricated, oiled, over the bay, ossified, owled, paralyzed, plastered, pie-eyed, pickled, piffed, piped, polluted, potted, primed, saturated, slopped, sloppy, stiff, stinko, soused, squiffy, stewed, sprung, tanked, tight, lit,under the table, wall-eyed, wet, woozy

Author: BygoneTheatre

Bygone Theatre was founded as a collective in October of 2012, and became an incorporated not-for-profit company in October of 2015. Our mandate is to produce theatre written or set in the early 20th century, focusing on historical aspects in design and incorporating a classic cinema aesthetic. ​ In 2019 Bygone Theatre was nominated for 14 Broadway World Toronto Awards, including Best Community Theatre and Best Play (Equity). We took home a total of 5 awards, 4 of which were for The Rear Window, including Best Direction of a Play (Equity); Best Original Lighting Design; Best Leading Actor (Play, Equity); and Best Featured Actress (Play, Equity). We took a hiatus our 2020/21 season because of the COVID19 pandemic, and used that time to develop our charitable initiatives. In August of 2021 we were nominated for the Toronto Star Readers' Choice Award for Best Live Theatre. Part of our mission involves inclusion and accessibility, and we strive to allow artists of all backgrounds and levels of experience the chance to have hands-on experience in whatever capacity they are most interested in; this has included youth outreach programs for high school students interested in production design, and acting opportunities for those who have never performed onstage.

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