And the Word of the Year 1915 is… flapper
True, as best we can tell, there was no actual selection of a Word of the Year a century ago. The modern phenomenon of choosing a Word of the Year began in 1990 with the American Dialect Society. The idea came from Time magazine’s choosing a Person of the Year each year, not by some formula but simply by the judgment that this person (or word) was particularly significant during the past year. Significant, representative of the year’s preoccupations and attitudes – those are the loose criteria members of the Dialect Society follow in casting their votes.
But what about the years before 1990? Fellow lexicographer David Barnhart and I ventured to fill the large gap of missing Words of the Year, with the benefit of hindsight giving us a good perspective on what was significant in the long run. In 1997 Houghton Mifflin published our book of backdates, America in So Many Words, one word for practically every year going all the way back to the first English-speaking settlement in Jamestown.
And for 1915 our Word of the Year was flapper. The word wasn’t new, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) blushingly makes clear. The OED cites slang dictionaries in the late nineteenth century which defined flapper as ‘a very young prostitute‘or ‘a very immoral girl in her early “teens”’. But it could also mean simply a girl, especially one with hair in a pigtail (and thus hair that would flap; that’s one possible origin of the term. In the 1920s, her hair was short). An 1888 dialect glossary said flapper was ‘applied in joke to a girl of the bread-and-butter age’.
These meanings were coming together in 1915 as a name for a modern, smart, fashionable young woman, so avant in the avant garde that she flirted with danger, for herself and others. We chose 1915 partly because of a comment by none other than H.L. Mencken: ‘The Flapper of 1915 has forgotten how to simper; she seldom blushes; and it is impossible to shock her’.
Flapper is also one of the key words in my new book, From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations. It’s a word belonging to what Gertrude Stein called the Lost Generation, whose members were born between 1881 and 1900. True, there were even more flappers in the earlier members of next generation, the G.I. generation (born 1901-1924), but the Lost Generation set the pattern.
Prohibition gave flappers new opportunity for ostentation. There was no minimum age for patronizing a speakeasy, and flappers of all ages were welcome. Skedaddle to Selfie makes room for a 1922 column by Chicago newspaperman Ben Hecht describing in detail a day in the company of a fictitious flapper in her late teens. The columnist thinks to himself that she is one of ‘the wise brazen little virgins who shimmy and toddle, but never pay the fiddler. She’s it. Selling her ankles for a glass of pop and her eyes for a fox trot. Unhuman little piece. A cross between a macaw and a marionette’.
The women’s vote, prohibition, speakeasies, and the Roaring Twenties made the flapper possible. With all but the women’s vote gone in the 1930s, the flapper was no more. Her combination of naughty and nice remains unique in American history.
Other candidates for 1915 WOTY might have been hip and hep – both with the meaning of ‘in the know’ and the basis for later hippie and hipster. Or pep, that energetic word. All three make their appearance in From Skedaddle to Selfie, but they weren’t named as Word of the Year in America in So Many Words.