20 words from the 1920s
The 1920s wasn’t just a period of decadence and flappers in a post-war haze of happiness. (‘Flapper’, by the way, emerged before the 1920s – lexicographer Allan Metcalf has nominated it as Word of the Year 1915.) While The Great Gatsby drew attention to a world of insouciant pleasure-seeking, the 1920s also saw plenty of words enter the language. Some seem apt for the era, some might surprise, and all twenty selected below have survived for almost a century.
1. It girl / It boy (n.)
A term still in use by many magazines and websites, It girl is first found in a May 1927 issue of the Los Angeles Times. The mention refers to the actress Clara Bow, and presumably relates to her role in the 1927 film adaptation of Elinor Glyn’s novel (also from 1927) It. Using it to describe sex appeal is currently dated to the first years of the twentieth century, and Glyn popularized the term. It girl grew in popularity and became distanced from the film – and It boy swiftly followed by 1929.
2. Adam and Eve (vb.)
The gentleman and lady in question rather substantially predate the 1920s, but the use of Adam and Eve as a verb is first recorded in 1925 in Soldier & Sailor Words (suggesting, of course, that this is predated by spoken use of the phrase – as is common with slang). Adam and Eve is an example of rhyming slang, used as a substitute for the word believe; ‘Could you Adam and Eve it?’ Rhyming slang is thought to have originated in the East End of London during the first half of the nineteenth century..
3. skint (adj.)
The same book provides the earliest instance of skint as a colloquial synonym for penniless. A year earlier the variant skinned was listed in a book of Leeds dialect.
4. oops (int.)
Vocal interjections appear in speech before they appear in print. That said, the earliest evidence we have for oops being written down comes from 1921, in the Washington Post. The etymology of oops is not certain – it may be a shortened version of upsidaisy (dating to 1862, and a fanciful variant of the earlier up-a-daisy) or may simply be a natural exclamation without any linguistic etymology.
5. facelift (n.)
The earliest evidence we have for facelift isn’t particularly auspicious – it comes from a 1926 newspaper headline: ‘Woman asks $50,00. Face-lift is lopsided.’ The word is actually preceded by the compound noun face lifting, which dates as far back as 1912.
6. blue rinse (n.)
Other, less surgical, methods of battling ageing also date to the 1920s. Blue rinse is first found, according to current findings, in a 1924 Illinois newspaper.
7. makeover (n.)
If you’re booked in for your first blue rinse, then chances are you’re having a makeover (of sorts). The noun relates to the phrasal verb to make over (to transfer the possession of or responsibility of something from oneself to another), which dates to 1478, and refers to God making over a person. The first reference to a makeover comes from a rather less holy source – Woman’s World in 1925 – although Vanity Fair (the magazine, rather than the novel) referred to the hypothetical Miss Angelica Makeover in 1860.
8. press-up (n.)
If you’ve ever wondered which came first, the push-up or the press-up, now you can know. Press-up (chiefly a British term) is currently dated to 1928 – but its American cousin the push-up is found in 1897.
9. freebie (n.)
The freebie – something provided without charge for promotional purposes – dates to 1925. The –bie extension appears to have evolved arbitrarily, although interestingly the first discovered instance spells the word free-be.
10. middlebrow (n. and adj.)
A frequently derogatory term, particularly in the heated cultural wars of the 1920s, middlebrow (1924 as a noun; 1928 as an adjective) evolved as a way of filling the gap between lowbrow (a person who is not highly intellectual or cultured, dating to 1901 for the noun and 1907 for the adjective) and highbrow (at the other end of the spectrum; 1908 noun, 1884 adjective). An alternative, mezzo-brow, dates to 1925 (as both noun and adjective) but has proved to have made rather less of a lasting impression.
11. Abominable Snowman (n.)
Another term for a yeti, Abominable Snowman was apparently originally a mistranslation of an alleged Tibetan name for the beast: metoh kangmi. The words translate as ‘filthy snowman’, but the journalist Henry Newman interpreted the word‘metoh’ to mean ‘abominable’ in a 1921 Times article. As he noted in 1937, in the same newspaper, “I was told by a Tibetan expert that I had not quite got the force of the word metoh. It did not mean ‘abominable’ quite so much as ‘filthy’ and ‘disgusting’, somebody dressed in rags.” Metoh itself probably reflects a compound of Tibetan mi, meaning ‘person’, and dom (pronounced ‘tome’) meaning ‘black bear’.
12. sexpert (n.)
A colloquial portmanteau for an expert in sex, sexpert dates as far back as a 1924 novel called Sailors’ Wives.
13. millisecond (n.)
Although often used colloquially for a very short interval of time, the first known use of millisecond is rather more precise – from a 1922 Dictionary of Applied Physics. As the word suggests, it refers to a one-thousandth of a second.
14. advertisingese (n.)
The noun advertisingese – language characteristic of advertisements, particularly in using slogans and hyperbole – is first found in 1929, according to current Oxford English Dictionary (OED) research; the examples given in this quotation from Printed Salesmanship are halitosis, millines (a unit of measurement of the value of advertising space), and the brand name polish Simoniz. The suffix –ese has an interesting history: the equivalent of the Latin ēnsem, meaning ‘belonging to, originating in (a place)’, it often forms derivatives from names of countries, such as Chinese and Portuguese. A more recent application of the suffix is to form words designating the diction of particular authors – Johnsonese, Carlylese – leading to an indication (often derogatory) of a characteristic language, as found in journalese, headlinese, officialese, and – indeed – advertisingese.
15. cushty (adj.)
The word cushty, which is first found in a 1929 book about slang and idioms, derives from the Romani words kushto and kushti, meaning ‘good’ – ‘kushto, koshto’ is first noted in an English dictionary of slang in 1889. The later arrival at cushty is perhaps influenced by the adjective cushy, used to describe an easy job or posting. Both words are probably ultimately related to Hindi khush ‘pleasure’.
16. hot diggety dog (int.)
Exploring where this exclamation of joy comes from takes you on an amusing path through the OED. The current first use comes from 1923, thus predating hot diggety (1924) but coming after the exclamation hot dog (1906). And how could I resist following the etymology instructions to compare hot ziggety (1924) and lickety (1817)?
And to finish: some compound nouns. The etymologies of these compound nouns aren’t difficult to spot, but it wasn’t until the 1920s (so far as evidence suggests) that people thought to put the words together.
17. colour coordination (n.)
The first known use is actually color coordination, coming (as it does) in a 1926 New York Times. The adjective colo[u]r-coordinating followed in 1931, and the verb colo[u]r-coordinate joined the others in 1940. In each case, the American spelling came first.
18. comfort zone (n.)
Although the figurative sense is perhaps more common now (‘a place or situation in which a person feels secure or at ease’), this meaning is not found until 1977. A 1923 Science magazine provided the earlier use: ‘the range of temperatures within which an environment is comfortable or habitable’.
19. dream team (n.)
Originally a sporting term, as team indicates, and first found in a 1925 Connecticut newspaper, an OED note comments that dream team became popularized internationally when it was the name given to the 1992 Olympic gold-winning U.S. basketball team, although the expression started gaining currency outside of sport in 1972, according to current research.
20. own goal (n.)
Another contribution from the world of sport is own goal – ‘a goal scored against the scorer’s own team, usually unintentionally’ – found in The Times in 1922. Again, a figurative sense has developed (‘an act that unintentionally harms one’s own interest’), first used in 1975, according to current research.
Looking for more words from history? See our post on words from the 1960s.