1920s Slang: 35 Hotsy-Totsy Terms We Should Bring Back

The Roaring Twenties were filled with pioneering advances of all kinds. They were also filled with terms like ‘gazump.’

‘Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire’ by Russell Patterson.
‘Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire’ by Russell Patterson. / Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

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 some 1920s slang terms to liven up your conversations in the 2020s.

Alarm Clock

This term, which dates back to 1922, was used to refer to someone who nagged or worried a lot. It was also a term for a chaperone. Jim Tully employed that phrase in its first sense in his 1922 novel Emmett Lawler: “Why, Auntie! You awful alarm clock. I never felt better than I have this summer.”


Gloria Swanson
Gloria Swanson can certainly be described as “bellibone.” / General Photographic Agency/GettyImages

If you wanted to dish out a compliment to a particularly fetching and well-dressed lady in the 1920s, you might go with bellibone, which was apparently derived from the French phrase belle et bonne, meaning “beautiful and good.”


A slang term for the butt that was often used in the phrase get your bohunkus out of here.


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.


Mencken also coined bootician, another word for a bootlegger, in 1925. “The term met a crying need,” he would later write, “and had considerable success.”

Bread and Honey

Payroll photos, Southern California, 1928
Men getting their bread and honey on pay day, 1928. / University of Southern California/GettyImages

Rhyming slang for money.

Bushwa and Phonus-Bolonus

Trying to cut down on traditional cursing? Swap out bullshit for its subtler offshoot bushwa, meaning “nonsense.” Or use phonus-bolonus, another contemporaneous term that also covered exaggeration, trickery, or basically any other phony behavior.

Caterpillar’s Kimono and Tadpole’s Teddies

You’ve heard of the cat’s pajamas and the bee’s knees, but flappers came up with many, many more animal-related phrases to get across the idea that something was pretty wonderful. Among them were caterpillar’s kimono and tadpole’s teddies.


1920s christmas party at the press club
A 1920s Crimbo party at the Press Club. / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

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!”

Coil One’s Ropes

This slang term meaning “to die” likely originated with sailors—according to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, “a good sailor always coiled his ropes properly at the end of his work.”


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.

Doowhanger and Doo-Wah-Diddy

Doowhanger was a slang term for “any nameless small object, typically some form of gadget,” according to Green’s. Author Louis Felix Ranlett used it in his 1927 novel Let’s Go: “Whoever fired that doo-whanger at him’s a poor shot.” Similarly, Green’s notes that the term doo-wah-diddy was “used as an all-purpose substitute for a word or phr[ase] one does not wish to use properly.”

The Eagers

The eagers was a 1920s slang term for anxiety or overeagerness. Here’s an example from a 1928 slang dictionary: “Don’t get the eagers now—just take things easy.”


A slang term from 1929 that meant, according to Green’s, “a disappointment, a failure; someone/something that promises much and fails to deliver.”

Gandy Dancer

Railroad workers beside a Rock Island Line train circa 1920
Railroad workers beside a Rock Island Line train circa 1920. / Kirn Vintage Stock/GettyImages

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). 

Horsefeathers and Horsecollar

Horsefeathers was another way to refer to nonsense or rubbish that was apparently coined as euphemism for horseshit. The word horsecollar meant the same thing, but was used as an exclamation. The word first popped up in print in 1923, and Jack Conroy used it in his 1935 book World to Win: “‘He felt as though he must write poetry, beauty burned so madly in his breast.’ ‘Horsecollar!’ scoffed Alan.”


phhoto of 15-year-old ginger rogers in a vaudeville costume
Ginger Rogers, age 15, at the start of her vaudeville stint in 1925. / John Springer Collection/GettyImages

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. 

Read More Articles About Slang From Decades Past:


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.”

Juice Joint

A slang term for a soda stand, juice joint was coined in 1927 and eventually came to refer to any establishment serving beverages, whether they were boozy or not.

Knee Dusters

A Stylishly Dressed Woman of the Flapper Era
A flapper modeling a dress you could probably call “a knee duster.” / George Rinhart/GettyImages

As technology exploded in the early twentieth century, fashion underwent a revolution of its own. The flappers of the 1920s raised hemlines to heights previously considered indecent. These short (at least for the time) dresses were given a descriptive nickname: knee dusters.


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.

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.


Scofflaws weren’t in short supply in the 1920s. The word—which describes a person who proudly flouts the law—entered the lexicon with help from a man named Delcevare King in 1924. That year, King held a contest to pick a name for the rule-breakers who imbibed during Prohibition. Throughout the decade, scofflaw was applied to people who drank alcohol in addition to indulging in other illicit activities.

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).


1922 Bean car after a crash
A pretty spitchered Bean in 1922. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

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.”

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.

Texan Road

Texan Road—a variant of Texen Road—was part of a trend of “Ka-cab—Ka-lat,” or backtalk. The phrase meant “next door.” Here’s an example exchange from a 1923 Northern Irish newspaper: “For instance, one shop-boy would ask another, ‘Where’s the retsam?’ and the reply would come like lightning ‘Texen Road.’”


Women shopping for summer hats in 1928
Women shopping for summer hats in 1928. / General Photographic Agency/GettyImages

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.


Champagne Glitz
Looks like she’s ready to get zozzled. / James Abbe/GettyImages

As long as they have produced alcohol, humans have come up with creative terms for getting drunk. The 1920s gave us one of the more delightful euphemisms for intoxication: zozzled. It’s one of many pieces of drinking lingo that was popularized during Prohibition, but unlike hooch and plastered, zozzled didn’t become a permanent part of the language.

A version of this story ran in 2023; it has been updated for 2024.