The Roaring ’20s is best known for its bustling nightlife scene and significant contributions to music, literature, art and fashion. It was a post-war period of dazzling decadence that all came crashing down with the Great Depression. Since then, the 1920s has enjoyed countless revivals. As recently as the mid-2010s, Great Gatsby-themed parties were all the rage. Now that we’re once again in the ’20s (albeit not quite as “roaring” ones, we thought we’d have a grand old time revisiting some 1920s slang.
Sure, words quickly come and go out of fashion. Yet like the iconic bob cut, don’t some of them deserve a comeback? Join us on our trip back in time to revive some Golden Age slang.
The Best Of 1920s Slang
The Cat’s Pajamas
Meaning: the most excellent; coolest
You might’ve already heard this expression, which refers to someone who is really cool and/or good at what they do. Other kooky versions of this phrase include combinations like “the eel’s ankle” or “the monkey’s eyebrows,” neither of which caught on. Perhaps there’s something inherently impressive (read: cute) about a cat in pajamas, but how exactly did this odd complement come to be?
As a figure of speech, it actually made a lot of sense during its time. “Cat” was used to describe the coolest of the cool (a.k.a. flapper dancers or jazz musicians). “Pajamas” (or pyjamas, if you’re not from the United States) comes from the Hindustani pāy-jāma or Persian pāy-jāmeh and refers to the comfy, loose-fitting clothes you wear when you don’t want to leave the house. Back then, they were an up-and-coming fashion trend.
Meaning: a speakeasy; night club
Obviously, all the cool cats needed a trendy spot to hang out, and where else could that be but the local juice joint? Now this may sound like a catchy name for a chain of smoothie shops, but don’t be fooled. In 1920s America, Prohibition of alcohol was in full swing, with unlawful bars and speakeasies popping up in major metropolitan areas faster than you can say “I have to go see a man about a dog” (code for going to buy yourself some whiskey).
Code names for anything alcohol-related were all the rage back then since drinking was literally illegal. People had to get creative with naming substances and activities to keep the underground nightlife scene alive. In fact, “juice” is still used today as a euphemism for booze. “Let’s hit up the juice joint” may not have the best ring to it, but we think it’s a quirky alternative to plain old “club.”
On A Toot
Meaning: to go on a drinking spree
Carrying on with our drinking theme, we don’t think we’ve ever heard of a more amusing way to call a night of excessive drinking. It’s hard to find the exact origins of this phrase, but “toot” is a surprisingly versatile word. Besides those impolite clouds of gas all humans produce out their rear ends, it can also refer to cocaine, the act of playing a horn or even a load of rubbish.
“To toot one’s horn” may have played a role in coining this phrase, since some people tend to get a bit over-confident before they’ve had a drink too many and call it a day. Regardless, there’s something quite funny about people from the 1920s talking about “going on a toot” the night before and getting so zozzled they lost all their cabbage.
OK, we promise this is the last booze-related 1920s slang word on our list. (What can we say? People living under Prohibition just couldn’t keep their hands out of the cookie jar.) Again, people had to come up with creative names for outlawed liquor, and “giggle water” is one of the more precious ones we’ve heard. Much nicer than, say, “hooch.”
“Juice” as a 1920s slang word seemed to be very en vogue because it was also used in alcohol-free contexts. Take “noodle juice,” for example. This actually refers to tea and sounds much better than the alternative, “brain juice.”
Meaning: a man; someone who lives extravagantly
Some of our Kiwi readers might wonder why this word has made our list, since its a common insult reserved for annoying jerks Down Under. It’s also not unheard of to call a mean person a “rotten egg” or “bad egg.” Conversely, you could call someone nice a “good egg,” but that’s probably not the most common compliment in the world.
Back in the ’20s, “egg” was also just another word for “man,” as in “What’s up, egg?” It could also be used to refer to a wealthy person who lives lavishly. This usage might come from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictional suburb of West Egg, where the Great Gatsby himself threw ritzy parties and lived a life of luxury among his fellow new money elite.
Know Your Onions
Meaning: to know what you’re talking about; knowledgeable
This is certainly a creative way to praise someone who knows what they’re doing, but did this random expression originate from the versatile knowledge it takes to cut an onion without shedding a tear?
Well, no one really knows. Some have speculated that this phrase gets its origin from Oxford Dictionary editor C. T. Onions. Now we’re sure Mr. Onions knew his stuff, but sadly this theory has been debunked. In fact, the word “onion” doesn’t seem to have any particular meaning here, as different versions of this figure of speech swap it out for other foodstuffs like “oats,” “apples” or, yes, even “eggs.”
Meaning: fancy clothes you wear on a night out
We could all use a bit more cheer this year, so out of all the words on our list, we’re really hoping this bit of 1920s slang makes a comeback. “Glad” comes from various Germanic words for “shiny” or “smooth.” Eventually, this came to mean bright, gleaming or joyful. Today, “glad rags” is considered an old-fashioned, British term for fancy clothes. It may seem like an oxymoron to call nice clothes “rags,” but the phrase is quite catchy.
In truth, this expression dates all the way back to the turn of the last century, but if there was ever a decade to dust off your spiffy clothes and go dancing, it was the Roaring Twenties. Nowadays you don’t have to be an egg or a flapper to wear some “glad rags”: just blast your favorite song and slip into an outfit that makes you feel like you could take on the world.