The language of the speakeasy
We’ve a lot invested in the idea of Prohibition as an era of wild drunkenness, all-night parties and lawlessness. And such language!
Back in the day – in this case from early 1920 to late 1933 – it became increasingly fashionable in urban areas for celebrities and the upper-middle classes to get dolled up in their glad rags and head off to the juice joint, where they’d get blottoed on hooch, maybe have a scronch or three, then beat their gums until their mazuma ran out. In other words, put on their best clothes, go party at a speakeasy, where they’d get drunk, maybe dance, and yak it up until they ran out of money.
We’d like to note that many words and terms associated with Prohibition were actually in use in the 19th century, long before the Volstead Act. The term speakeasy, derived from the practice of asking patrons to be quiet about the illegal bar’s location, is rather self-explanatory. The same for blind tiger (or blind pig), which, in counties or municipalities that had voted themselves “dry,” is what they called those places that charged admission to view, say, a pig painted in stripes or other such “exotic” creatures. Admission, surely by coincidence, included a free glass of whisky.
Also pre-Prohibition: bootleggers, who came about to slake illicit thirsts from flasks concealed in their high boots. Ditto skid road (later to become skid row), originally a section of the city (sources differ as to whether the term originated in Seattle or Vancouver) that loggers used to skid timber down into the harbor that, during Prohibition, would become a center for the illegal liquor trade.
Then again, many of these colorful terms certainly derived from the illegal sale of alcohol and many became increasingly popular during Prohibition – an era seemingly dominated by creative slang. It was almost as if everybody was so ossified all the time that it didn’t really matter if they even said the right words. As long as the made-up words they were saying had a good ring to them, it was jake.
Speaking of which, jake wasn’t always a good thing. It was also the name for Jamaican ginger, a patent medicine with a high alcohol content – so high that authorities insisted manufacturers up the ginger content so that it became bitter and unpalatable. Bootleggers responded by adding a plasticizer that would fool government tests and keep it drinkable for those who used it recreationally. The adulterant (tricresyl phosphate), unfortunately, turned out to be a neurotoxin and some 50,000 people fell victim to jake-walk or jake-foot – often a permanent paralysis. Before long, most everybody understood what blues singer Asa Martin’s song “Jake Walk Papa” was all about.
Some of the most interesting new slang was Harlemese, which was called the “language of the speakeasy” in a 1929 New York Sunday News that also included a glossary of terms it felt readers might need on a tour of the nightclub circuit.
According to the News, you’d take your lammer (car) to the joint and ask for some lap (liquor). If you wanted to bet the numbers (official daily New York financial indicators that locals used like a lottery) you’d be playing bolido. If your numbers clicked, you’d win a boodle and if you were a real dicty (good sport), you’d splurge on a round of juice, maybe some snouts (pickled pigs snouts, that is) and chitterlings (delicacies of the time) as well.
It’s often thought people drank more during Prohibition than before. Fact is, most people drank far less, mainly on account of it being prohibitively expensive and/or difficult to obtain, especially outside of major cities like New York and Chicago, both famously wet.
What is absolutely fascinating about this era of semi-public drinking, though, is the phenomenal and unprecedented melting pots that speakeasies became. Arguably, Prohibition represented the first time since the early colonial days in which there was a real likelihood that men and women of a range of classes, along with racial minorities, drank in the same room together.
This, of course, was completely objectionable to many who could recall the saloon, which was segregated and, for the large part, a white man’s domain. The anxiety over the dangerous mix in the speakeasy, combined with a real need for a new revenue stream is what drove the engine for repeal.
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