Nothing makes a person feel more like a flivver than getting too peloothered and waking up with the woofits. Any self-respecting beezer around during the early 20th century wouldn’t need a dictionary to decipher this intro, but you might.
Here are 20 colorful slang terms from the 1910s.
Everyone knows someone who loves to be the voice of opposition. To us, they’re a hater or a contrarian. To our early 20th-century counterparts, they were an againster.
2. Annie Oakley
“A man was brought to him one day,” she recounted in a 1922 newspaper interview, “who had rented out his baseball pass. Ban Johnson looked at it, filled with neat holes, and suggested that the man had been letting me use it for a target.”
3. Bean Ball
In the 1910s, beezer could either refer to an intelligent person or a nose. The origins of both senses are unclear, but the former is believed to hail from Scotland.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, James Justinian Morier’s 1834 novel Ayesha, The Maid of Kars popularized the word bosh—from the Turkish for “empty, worthless”—among English speakers. Victorians used it as a noun or interjection meaning “nonsense.” Bosher, which came along later, described a person who talked bosh.
Flivver was used as both a noun that described a cheap car or plane and a verb that described going somewhere in a flivver. But it could also more broadly refer to any failure, be it a thing or a person. Pretty versatile for a term whose provenance is a mystery.
During World War I, it wasn’t uncommon for a soldier to call their rifle (or any gun) a “hipe.” It’s been suggested that the term started out as an unspecific utterance that military leaders shouted in place of the word arms during commands—a theory slightly less strange when you understand how hut became so popular in the military (and football).
World War I soldiers were also known to shout “Imshi!” to get someone to go away—derived from the Arabic for “go away!”
In the 19th century, a jake was “a rustic lout or simpleton,” per the OED. But by the 1910s, people had started to use the term as an adjective meaning “excellent, admirable, fine.” Australians and New Zealanders favored slightly jazzier spin-offs: jakeloo, jakealoo, and jakerloo.
12. The Life of Riley
Someone leading an untroubled, happy life in the early 20th century was said to be living the life of Riley. Though the surname’s popularity makes it hard to pinpoint which Riley or Reilly inspired the expression (the real McCoy has the same issue), there are theories. One is that it came from a song written in the 1880s by Irish vaudevillian Pat Rooney called “Is That Mr. Reilly?” In the chorus, people greet the titular Reilly—a self-proclaimed “man of renown”—as such:
“Is that Mr. Reilly, can anyone tell?
Is that Mr. Reilly that owns the hotel?
Well if that’s Mr. Reilly they speak of so highly,
Upon me soul, Reilly, you’re doing quite well.”
This track doesn’t mention the phrase the life of Reilly in so many words, but an older Irish folk song does. In it, Willie Reilly risks execution for allegedly abducting Colleen Bawn (one of several variations of her name), who saves his life by asserting that she loves him—and fleeing home to be with him was her idea. The two presumably live happily ever after.
15. Monkey Parade
During the late Victorian era, the single youths of London’s East End took to strolling up and down Bow Road in droves to mix and mingle with each other—prompting people to nickname the road “Monkey’s Parade.” By the early 20th century, the custom had caught on in other neighborhoods, and people had started calling any such gathering a “monkey parade.” British writer Edwin Pugh described a monkey parade in colorful detail in his 1914 story collection The Cockney at Home: “It’s a place where the elite of the beau monde of Suburbia meet nightly, for purposes of flirtation. It’s generally a big main thoroughfare. The fellahs and the girls wink and smirk as they pass, and break hearts at two yards with deadly precision.”
Of all the slang coined during the Great War, French expressions mispronounced by British troops may be the funniest. Il n’y en a plus or il n’y a plus—translated as “there is no more”—became napoo. It described something (or someone) that was finished or dead, not unlike kaput. Too bad the term napoo is now napoo.
Peloothered was an Irish term for drunk that may have derived from blootered, an earlier word used to the same effect. James Joyce described the character Tom Kernan as “peloothered” in Dubliners. (Kernan cops to the accusation.)
18. Saltash Luck
Per the OED, any “thankless or fruitless task that involves getting wet through” could be considered Saltash luck. In Saltash, a riverside town in Cornwall, UK, fishers “sat by the ferry … for hours, and caught nothing but colds,” according to Rick Jolly’s Jackspeak: A Guide to British Naval Slang and Usage.