The Roaring Twenties gave us U.S. women’s suffrage, penicillin, and the League of Nations. It also gave us the phrase screaming meemies. Here are 16 slang terms from the 1920s to liven up your conversations in the 2020s.
H.L. Mencken is credited with coining booboisie, a clunky portmanteau of boob and bourgeoisie that describes any group of “stupid, inept, or blundering people,” per the Oxford English Dictionary. “Democracy is the theory that the booboisie knows what it wants, and deserves to get it good and hard,” Mencken wrote in 1921.
2. and 3. Bushwa and Phonus-Bolonus
Trying to cut down on traditional cursing? Swap out bullsh** for its subtler offshoot bushwa, meaning “nonsense.” Or phonus-bolonus, another contemporaneous term that also covered exaggeration, trickery, or basically any other phony behavior.
Discussing your favorite Christmas cookies and Christmas songs could be even more entertaining if you called them “Crimbo cookies” and “Crimbo songs” instead. Brits coined the term Crimbo, which also inspired a not Christmas-specific interjection. “By crimbo,” you might say, “That Mariah Carey is quite the Queen of Christmas!”
The word dhobi (from the Hindi dhōbī), describing “a native washerman in India,” per the OED, had entered the English lexicon by the early 19th century. About a century later, Navy men started referring to doing laundry in general as dobeying.
6. Gandy Dancer
Railroad maintenance workers were sometimes called “gandy dancers” in the 1920s, though it’s a bit of a mystery where gandy came from. According to a 1933 edition of the American Dialect Society journal American Speech, the phrase was inspired by “the rhythmic up-and-down motion of workers pumping a handcar.”
Did a clever con artist swindle you out of your fortune—or convince you to buy the Brooklyn Bridge, perhaps? Take consolation in the fact that you can now at least say “I got gazumped” (or gazoomphed, an alternate spelling with a little extra oomph).
Flapper-era Americans took hot in the “great” or “wonderful” sense and created a jauntier version: hotsy-totsy. Its meaning got muddled a bit due to the older expression hoity-toity, so some later instances of hotsy-totsy imply haughtiness or pretension, especially in reference to fashion.
9. John Q. Public
The practice of calling a hypothetical man “John Doe” has been around since the 16th century. But the 1920s gave rise to a new iteration: John Q. Public, which, as the name suggests, represents an average male member of the populace.
When silent-film star Gloria Swanson auctioned off the furnishings from her Long Island summer home in 1927, for example, The Los Angeles Times reported that “Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public, whatever they think of Gloria on the screen, didn’t enthuse over buying her cast-off eastern furniture.”
If you were feeling depressed in the 1910s, you might say you had the woofits. The following decade produced another way to describe the blues: mokus. Its provenance is a mystery, but it may have originated in the military and/or been influenced by mocker, an Australian slang term for bad luck.
11. Moom Pitcher
The ubiquity of the term movie today makes it easy to forget just how cute it is that English speakers started calling moving pictures “movies” and simply never stopped. What they did stop doing was calling them “moom pitchers,” which is unfortunate.
12. Screaming Meemies
When the phrase screaming meemies arrived on the scene in the ’20s, it described drunkenness or the withdrawal symptoms you might experience after a bender. “A couple of tots of this brew would probably, to use the expressive language of the States, give one ‘the heeby-[jeebies],’ ‘the screaming meemies,’ or ‘the whoops and jingles,’” South London’s Norwood News reported in 1927. (The brew in question was “whisky, port, and horseradish cream.”)
By the following decade, the definition had expanded to include hysteria or extreme nervousness brought on by basically anything—from watching a suspenseful film to finding out that Eleanor Roosevelt and friends once disrespected the sanctity of the word picnic by eating their picnic lunch in a hotel dining room (in her defense, it was raining).
Dropped your phone in the toilet and now it won’t turn on? Consider it spitchered—a nautical slang term for “rendered inoperative, ruined,” per the OED. It derives from spicca, Maltese for “finished.”
14. Tell That to My Aunt Fanny
Having an aunt named Fanny is not a prerequisite of exclaiming “Tell that to my Aunt Fanny!” upon learning something too outrageous to believe. My auntie and my arse are both earlier interjections used to similar effect, so it’s possible that the Aunt Fanny version arose as a conflation of sorts.
In early 20th-century rhyming slang, tit for tat meant “hat.” That eventually got shortened to titfer, which wouldn’t be out of place on a list of words that sound dirty but actually aren’t.
Both yentz and its Yiddish source, yentsen, mean “to copulate.” Ernest Hemingway made colorful use of the term, which he spelled yence, on a few occasions. “The dancers dance in long white pants / It isn’t right to yence your aunts,” he wrote in his poem “The Soul of Spain With McAlmon and Bird the Publishers.” Hell of a way to find out where Hemingway stands on the aunt pronunciation debate.