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Early Twentieth Century Slang


June 5, 2015 by Pamela Nowak

Today’s blog is a bit different from my norm. It’s more a list than a true blog but I hope it’s entertaining nonetheless.

Writing Escaping Yesterday (set in 1905) meant learning a whole new set of slang, since my prior books were all set in the 1870s. This meant buying more reference books! Slang evolved more slowly prior to 1900. But with more activities for young people, a new subculture emerged. With the first decade of the new century came such terms as babe (a pretty girl), bum (to beg), and chump (a fool). Others included foxy (well-dressed), flivver (a deception or failure), jitney (a nickel), and yap (the mouth). I had a wonderful time selecting some of these great new terms and phrases for my characters. I’ll share a few just to keep you in the know.

A number of still-familiar slang terms date to the first decade of the twentieth century. I’m including them without definitions since most are still in use or were in recent use. If you have a question on any of them, comment and I’ll provide the meaning.

Among the terms the stood the test of time: road apple, all in, ambulance chaser, ask for it, back-pedal, and blue balls. Also: boo-boo, the boonies, bring home the bacon, and butterflies (in the stomach). To butt-in dates from 1900. Cauliflower ear and chain-smoke and chew the fat are from the same decade. Cross my heart and hope to die came into use around 1908. Single men cruised for women as early as 1903. There were desert rats and doodads and drifters. One might drop a bundle or be a dud or fall off the wagon. You would have a fat chance of getting a freebie at the five-and-dime but you might buy some new glad rags. You might get behind a good cause, get on someone’s nerves, get in on the ground floor, or go hog wild.

To hang/tie one on came into use about 1900, as did hard-luck story. You might have a bat in the belfry or have a cow/cat/kittens or discover one had hell to pay. One might do something in a big way or be in the clear or be in the know. You could take a joy ride if you kept your eye on the ball. Maybe you would see a knockout to practice your line on. A live wire might pick up a real looker and get all lovey-dovey or make goo-goo eyes at him. Someone with moxie might not bat an eye at living on easy street but there’s an outside chance a panhandler would. No one wanted to be a patsy or a phoney or get too pie-eyed.

Racy and rat were new terms by 1902. Re-up also came into use along with a riot and scream. You might have a run-in with someone or someone might sandbag you. One might scrounge up something, hear scuttlebutt, or tell someone “search me”. Someone might get sent up the river. You might ask how much something will set you back or get a shiner. You might sling beer or sling hash for a living. You might get slopped or sloshed or soused on suds. Small change meant something of little value. Even snarky was from that decade and so was spring chicken. You might have to take your medicine if you told someone where to get off. One might get turned on by someone’s undies and a wisenheimer might yip too much.

In addition to all those early twentieth century terms and phrases which are still recognizable, there were a number of unique and unfamiliar ones, and a large number of sexual euphemisms. Here are a few that caught my attention along with definitions, since they are less familiar. All of a doodah (upset, nervous); banana oil (nonsense); bazoo (mouth); beaver (bearded man); berry (dollar); billy doo (love letter); blood on the floor (emotional residue of a struggle); blowoff (climax); bone-top (stupid person); brannigan (spree); bromide (stale joke or trite wisdom); bubs (breasts); and bullets (peas or beans). Also: can house (brothel); canned goods (a virgin, from 1918 rather than the first decade); Chamber of Commerce (toilet); crawl someone’s hump (assault someone); crockery (teeth); dippy (foolish); dizzy-wizzy (narcotics); fried hat (showy brass military hat decoration); gat (pistol); gink (tedious person); give someone the glad eye (glance invitingly); glom (grab or hand that grabs); and gonged (stoned). Then there were: gully low (sensuous, insinuating); have a rod on (have an erect penis); hot baby (wild and sexual woman); Izzatso? (exclamation of disbelief); kale-seed (money); lamster (escaped convict); lollapalooza (remarkable person or thing); mommick up (confuse or botch); mountain canary (donkey); and one-lunger (one cylinder engine). As well: peacherino (superior); plug (have sex); pogey bait (sweets–1918); poodle-faker (ladies’ man); pull oneself off (masturbate); punk (sodomize); rapper (one who identifies or convicts a criminal); rattler (train); red paint (ketchup); rosy (slightly drunk); and schmear (bribe). Finally: shitstick (stupid person); smoke factory (opium den); stuff (woman regarded as a sex object); suck eggs( be irritable); twofer (cheap cigar); weasel words (words designed to deceive); weenchy (very small); wife (prostitute); yegg (burgler); and yoke (to rob with violence). Oops—that list turned out long. I hope it brought some smiles.

To finish up, I thought I would focus on a sampling of the circa 1900 slang I used in Escaping Yesterday. To make it more interesting than just a list of words and meanings (and to whet your appetite a little), I’m including full lines—no definitions, with dating in parenthesis. If you’re intrigued, release date is September 16! The book is up for pre-sale on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Denver, Cheyenne, and Front Range area signing events are in October with Tattered Cover (Colfax) launching things off on October 9. See the Events page for a full listing.

“Are you letting every Tom, Dick, and Harry dip his wick (late 1800s) or are you bedding one in particular?”

“I tell ya, baby doll (early 1900s), the kid is slowing us down.”

“You and me, together, schmoozing (1897) the park owners.”

“Send her home and let’s quit pussyfooting (1903) around.”

A good salesman should always know his marks (1883).

Damn, she was a looker (1902).

She cringed as she realized she pretty much was a tart (1887).

“I started hanging out in front of the gyp (1889) joints when I was still a kid, luring in customers for them.”

“Just an easy mark (1896).”

Holy cats!” (1900)

She’d been his sidekick (1906), and they’d had some great times together….

“He’s a bad actor (1900), all right.”


Next week, we’ll keep the focus on fun changes of the early 1900s with a focus on fashion. Like learning new slang, I had to research a new era of fashion since my prior books were set in the 1870s. It was a fun adventure and I’ll spend a week sharing some of the changes with you. Each Friday, I will blog about some aspect of Elitch Gardens, early Denver, or other topics related to my next novel, Escaping Yesterday. In between, I will post small factoids on my Facebook page. You can join me there and I love new friends (

Due for release in September 2015, Escaping Yesterday is set in Elitch’s Gardens, in 1905, and follows the story of Lottie Chase. Lottie is willing to take any risk to save her daughter from their abusive uncle. Stranded in Denver, Lottie meets Caleb Hudson, manager at Elitch’s Gardens amusement park, who sees her as a manipulative huckster. Caleb, a veteran suffering from PTSD, craves the tranquility of the park’s gardens. Lottie brings anything but peace as she seeks to convince the owners to add thrill rides so she can collect the sales commission and support her daughter. Neither anticipates their growing passion, common demons, or the dangers they will face as they confront their pasts and free their love.




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