30 words and phrases from the 1920s that are still the ‘cat’s pajamas’

It’s been 100 years since these words were part of the everyday American lexicon. Do any of these old sayings deserve a closer look in modern times?

Never underestimate the power of words to communicate culture and define the spirit of the age. In 2020, the words “pandemic,” “lockdown,” “COVID,” “remote,” “anti-masker,” “unprecedented” and “unmute” were all chosen as “meaningful terms” or as “word[s] of the year.”

To further explore how words can capture and transmit the ideas and beliefs of the time, let’s take a look at the 1920s in words. One hundred years ago, you might have overheard these expressions in a café or while riding the bus. (Definitions from Merriam-Webster, Wordnik, Dictionary.com, and Wikipedia.)

1. Bees knees — someone or something splendid or stylish; admirable (also, cat’s meow); a cocktail with gin, lemon and honey that dates back to the Prohibition era.

2. To be on the nut — to be without money; broke

3. Bimbo — a brutish, unintelligent man; a bully

4. Cat’s pajamas — a term of endearment

5. Clam — a dollar or a buck

6. Dewdropper — a lazy, unemployed man

7. Ducky — all right, fine, good

8. Flat tire — a disappointing date

9. Giggle water — alcohol

10. Glad rags — party clothes

11. Handcuff — a wedding or engagement ring

12. Have the bees — to have money, to be rich

13. Heeled — carrying a gun

14. Hotsy totsy — comfortable; stable or secure

15. Icy mitt — rejection from one’s boyfriend or girlfriend

16. Jake — satisfactory or cool

17. Jalopy — an old, run-down automobile; a clunker

18. Know one’s onions — to be experienced or knowledgeable about something

19. Large — slang for $1,000 (“10 large” would be $10,000)

20. Mouthpiece — a lawyer, especially a criminal lawyer

21. Now you’re on the trolly — to understand or catch on

22. Oil can — a naïve or unsophisticated person

23. Out on the roof — to be drunk; to drink in excess

24. Quilt — an alcoholic drink that keeps you warm

25. Sawbuck — a 10-dollar bill

26. Skate around — to be of easy virtue

27. Soak — to pawn

28. Sob sister — a writer or journalist who specializes in emotional or sentimental articles

29. Two bits — 25 cents

30. Wet blanket — someone who ruins other people’s fun; a drag

Have any other phrases from the 1920s? Please add them in the comment section.

Laura Hale Brockway is a writer and editor from Austin, Texas. Read more of her posts on PR Daily and at impertinentremarks.com.

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