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15 Fun Phrases Popularized During Prohibition

Jennifer M Wood
Law enforcement agents examining at a cache of 191 pint bottles found underneath a sailor's mattress on a steamer putting in at Norfolk, Virginia, during Prohibition.
Law enforcement agents examining at a cache of 191 pint bottles found underneath a sailor's mattress on a steamer putting in at Norfolk, Virginia, during Prohibition. / Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images (men); Ajwad Creative (speech bubble) // iStock via Getty Images Plus
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It's been more than a century since Prohibition took effect (on January 17, 1920) in the United States, and more than 85 years since it ended (on December 5, 1933)—but the colorful colloquialisms it popularized will live on forever. Here are just a handful of them.

1. Blind Pig

An illegal drinking establishment, a.k.a. a speakeasy, that attempted to evade police detection by charging patrons a fee to gaze upon some sort of exotic creature (i.e. a blind pig) and be given a complimentary cocktail upon entrance. Also known as a blind tiger. According to Merriam-Webster, both phrases were used pre-Prohibition, dating back to 1886 and 1857, respectively.

2. Juice Joint

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this term dates back to 1927 and can be used to refer to "a bar, club, or stall serving either alcoholic or non-alcoholic liquor." It became a term for a speakeasy in the 1930s.

3. Jake Walk

A jake walk is paralysis or loss of muscle control in the hands and feet due to an overconsumption of Jamaican ginger, a.k.a. Jake, a legal substance with an alcoholic base. The numbness led sufferers to walk with a distinct gait that was also known as Jake leg or Jake foot.

4. Ombibulous

A term made up by writer H.L. Mencken in 1920 to describe his love of alcohol; he noted, “I'm ombibulous. I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all.” Mencken was also fond of referring to bootleggers as booticians.

5. Skid Road

A precursor to the term Skid Row, a skid road was the place where loggers hauled their goods. During Prohibition, these “roads” became popular meeting places for bootleggers.

6. Brick of Wine

Oenophiles looking to get their vino fix could do so by simply adding water to a dehydrated block of juice, which would become wine. (And you thought a box of wine was bad!)

7. Bathtub Gin

A homemade—and often poorly made—gin. It was often made in a bottle so tall that it could not be mixed with water from a sink tap and was mixed in a bathtub instead. Though the phrase references gin specifically, it came to be used as a general term for any type of cheap homemade booze.

8. White Lightning

According to Detroit Beer: A History of Brewing in the Motor City, "white lightning was the whiskey equivalent of bathtub gin. Both were highly potent, illegally made, and poor-quality spirits."

9. Teetotaler

A person who abstains from the consumption of alcohol. According to Merriam-Webster, "In the early 1800s, tee-total and tee-totally were used to intensify total and totally ... Teetotal and teetotaler first appeared with their current meanings in 1834, eight years after the formation of the American Temperance Society." And the tee here isn't related to the beverage; as Merriam-Webster notes, it's "a reduplication of the letter "t" that begins total, emphasizing that one has pledged total abstinence."

10. Dry

A noun used in reference to a person who is opposed to the legal sale of alcoholic beverages. Bureau of Prohibition agents were often referred to as Dry Agents (though corruption among this crew ran rampant). As an adjective, it describes a place where alcohol is not served.

11. Wet

The opposite of dry, a wet is a person who is for the legal sale of alcoholic beverages or a place where liquor is in full supply.

12. Whale

A heavy drinker.

13. Blotto

Extremely drunk, often to the point of unconsciousness. According to the OED, this term originated in 1917.

14. Hooch

Low-quality liquor, usually whiskey. The term originated in the late 1800s as a shortened version of “Hoochinoo,” a distilled beverage from Alaska that became popular during the Klondike gold rush. The phrase came back into heavy use in the 1920s. 

15. Giggle water

This term for champagne originated in 1910. Later, it referred more generally to alcoholic beverages, especially one made of whiskey or gin.

A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.

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