Can You Translate These Slang Words From the '20s?

Monica Lee

Image: gehringj/E+/Getty Images

About This Quiz

Flappers, speakeasies, feather boas and the Charleston. Life in the 1920s was unconventional. Rationing from WWI was a thing of the past. And the world was ready to celebrate in a big way. Flappers challenged traditional, Victorian standards by smoking, drinking and dancing in public. And the jargon reflected the newfound freedoms of the Roaring Twenties with fun and silly words.  Consider language like "giggle water," “applesauce” and “bee’s knees," -- one couldn't help but share in the contagious giddy mood of the slang.

Prohibition, instead of quelling drunkenness and violence, is widely cited as a leading cause of organized crime during the 1920s. Naturally, there was a large amount of lingo that had to do with procuring and drinking alcohol. The 1920s slang included "I have to see a man about a dog" (going to buy a drink) to such jargon as "foot juice" (wine), "ossified" (drunk), "on a toot" (bender), and "panther piss" (whiskey, particularly homemade whiskey).  Of course, social interactions had their own language as well. Many names for the opposite sex were especially goofy, from boyfriends being called "jellybeans" to attractive women referred to as "a choice bit of calico".  How much of this jargon could you have figured out? Test yourself now, and if you score well, make some whoopee!

What does "foot juice" mean?

This phrase makes sense when you recall that traditionally wine was made by stomping grapes with your feet.

What does "zozzled" mean?

Having a night on the town, and imbibing a little too much? You'll get zozzled if you don't slow down your drinking.

What is a “jelly bean”?

"Look at all those women with their jelly beans, there's not one who will dance with me."

What's a "quilt"?

On a cold day, a drink that warms you is called a quilt.

If you were to say "rhatz," what would you mean?

It sounds like "Rats!" And "rhatz" means how disappointing. Just like today's version of "rats"!

What does the "bee's knees" mean?

Bee’s knees is a nonsense catchphrase. It denotes that something is good, desirable or pleasing. Other catchphrases meaning the same thing are "cat’s meow" and "pig's wings".

What's a "clam" mean?

"Can you spot me a few clams?" This is another way to say dollar. Other types of slang for money are "cabbage" and "kale".

Heard of "dewdropper"? What does it mean?

Dewdropper is a young, unemployed guy who sleeps all day. During the 1920s you might also call him a "lollygagger".

If you called someone a "fire extinguisher" what would you mean?

A chaperone is an example of a "fire extinguisher". It is someone who takes the potential fun out of a situation.

What part of your body is your "gams?"

You can also call them "pins" or "stilts," but "gams" means legs, usually of the female persuasion that are good looking.

If you "have to go see a man about a dog" what are you really doing?

No dog is involved with this one. If you have to see a man about a dog, you are going to go buy whiskey.

"To know one's onions." What does that mean?

Yes, you know your onions if you know what someone's talking about. You are up on the conversation.

If you've been on a "toot"? What have you been doing?

You are drunk, probably from having been on a toot, or a drinking binge. Other jargon includes "splifficated," "fried", and "blotto".

What does a "soup job" mean?

A soup job is to crack a safe using nitroglycerine. This jargon may relate to the fact that both nitroglycerine and soup are liquids.

"Tell it to Sweeney." If someone says that to you, what does it mean?

"Tell it to Sweeney" means to say that to someone who'll believe your "phonus balonus" or lies.

Shelia is just a "wet blanket." What is she?

Someone who is no fun, no fun at all. Someone who does not like have "whoopee" or a good time.

If you make a statement and the other person utters "applesauce". What are they trying to convey?

"Applesauce" is used to demonstrate your lack of appreciation for the words of another or that you believe the statement is not truthful.

Remember, this is in the '20s: What did "bimbo" mean back then?

Back then, a tough guy who was not intelligent was a "bimbo". But currently it is used to describe an attractive but empty-headed young woman.

What slang term would you use in the 1920s to ask for a cigarette?

They didn't know about cancer back then. Cigarettes have been in our vocabulary for a long time. It's amazing how much jargon is written for a cigarette, this includes "bummage," "fag" and "ciggy."

If you were "out on parole" what did that mean?

A person who was divorced was "out on parole". It makes sense when you know the jargon for being engaged and married.

You're "handcuffed." What are you?

It makes sense that divorced meant "paroled" back then, since "handcuff" and "manacle" meant engagement and wedding ring.

“That sounds like berries to me!” What are you saying?

Yes, it's the "bee's knees" because it sounds good to you!

If someone is a chronic bore, what slang would you use to describe them?

The gimlet is a cocktail. A 1928 description of the drink was: "gin, a spot of lime, and soda".

If someone said "nerts!" what would it mean?

The expression, "Nerts!" meant "I am amazed." It's similar to Robin saying, "Holy cow, Batman!"

You want to say something is nonsense. What term would you use from the 1920s?

"Phonus balonus" or what we might say today, "phony baloney," means nonsense.

In the 1920s if you heard "the bank's closed" what would it mean?

If you knew that "cash" was a smooch in the 1920s it would make more sense that saying "the bank is closed" meant to stop making out.

What did "canceled stamp" mean back in the day?

A canceled stamp refers to a shy, lonely female, some might call this type of woman a “wallflower”.

What does a "bluenose" mean?

Bluenose is a slang term that means prudish or the individual is a killjoy.

What did a "choice bit of calico" mean in the 1920s?

"A choice bit of calico" referred to a desirable woman during the Roaring Twenties.

“Don’t take any wooden nickels!” What did it mean if someone said that to you?

It's a lighthearted reminder to be cautious in one's dealings. Did you know that a wooden nickel was used as wooden token coin, offered by a merchant or bank as a promotion? Sometimes it was redeemable for a specific item such as a drink.

What did a "four-flusher" mean back then?

A four-flusher could also be called a "welcher", "piker", or "braggart". This term originated in the 19th century when bluffing poker players misrepresented that they had a flush—a poker hand with five cards all of one suit—when they only had four cards of one suit.

If you were looking for "giggle water" what were you hoping to find?

Yes, the alcohol in the beverage would make you giggle. Hence, "giggle water" was a type of liquor.

If you told someone “Go chase yourself!” what did you want them to do?

If you wanted someone to leave you alone, you'd tell them to “Go chase yourself!” Hopefully they would get the hint and leave.

What did "icy mitt" mean in the 1920s?

We hope you don't get an icy mitt from the object of your affection, as it's a rejection like a cold shoulder or an icy stare.

What did "Jake" mean in the Roaring Twenties?

Jake means OK, fine, as in “Don’t worry, everything’s Jake.”

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