The 1920s was a colorful decade in both Europe and America, sandwiched between the hardships of the two World Wars. Especially in the United States, the 1920s was also accompanied with a dizzying amount of slang, most of which was used by young people. Many phrases from 1920s slang are still used in modern English, as is the case with terms like “baby” for sweetheart, “necking” for making out, “john” for toilet, and “joe” for coffee. Others have faded into obscurity, only to be revived in films and books which celebrate the 1920s.
1920s slang is often related to alcohol and having a good time, since Prohibition put a premium on both of these things. The slang also reflects changing morals and ideas, especially surrounding sexuality. Flappers, young women who enjoyed risque garments and late night dancing, abounded, as did daddys, wealthy older men, to support them. Many of these terms suggest a sense of fun and mischievousness, both of which ran rampant during the 1920s.
An attractive woman in 1920s slang was a Sheba, while a man was a Sheik. The two might spend a night on the snuggle bunny, the back seat of a car, assuming neither upchucked from drinking too much hooch. A woman might also put the brakes on the proceedings by declaring “the bank's closed,” or she might be a wet blanket and want to go home early. People who stayed out late were known as owls, a term which has endured to this day.
Something particularly excellent might be the bee's knees, the cat's pajamas, or the cat's meow. A woman might get dolled up in her glad rags for a late night on the town, meaning that she put some care into her appearance and wore her nicest garments. After a blind date, one or more participants might carry a torch for the other, assuming that no one got smacked in the kisser, or mouth. Being a good hoofer, a dancer, was also a valued trait.
Given the criminal atmosphere of the 1920s, it should come as no surprise that many 1920s slang terms were related to criminal activity. Someone might be on the lam from the fuzz, indicating that they were avoiding the police, or “on the level,” for law abiding and reasonable. In a hairy situation, someone might become the fall guy, taking the punishment or being framed for a crime. When a joint or club was raided, the celebrants would usually scram in an attempt to avoid being penalized.
In 1920s-speak, an establishment might be ritzy, like the hotel chain, meaning that it was extremely nice. People were advised not to take any wooden nickels, a colorful way to say “don't be stupid,” and stragglers would be exhorted to “get a wiggle on” for “get moving!” And, of course, people were reminded to “mind your own beeswax” if they got too nosy.
The long-term endurance of many 1920s slang terms may be related to a general glorification of the era. It is probably also due to the fact that the 1920s marked a distinct change in attitudes, especially for young people, and it paved the way for many other things, from the spread of jazz to the women's liberation movement. Thus, the neologisms of the 1920s hold particular resonance since many of them describe new concepts.