The 1940s were defined by the end of the Great Depression and the start of World War II, but enough with the gobbledygook. If you want to know what it was like to strike up a casual conversation in this mid-20th-century decade, we’re going to tell it like it is—with a list of the words and phrases any eager beaver would know well. Ready to find out what’s buzzin’, cousin? Now we’re cooking with gas!
1. Armored Heifer
This phrase might evoke imagery of a cow adorned in metal protective gear, but don’t get too excited. The only time you’d come across an armored heifer in the 1940s would be when there was no fresh milk for your morning coffee. Instead, you’d have to settle for canned or condensed milk, otherwise known as armored heifer or armored cow. According to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, this term was the World War II version of an earlier nickname for the grocery staple, tin cow.
2. Cooking With Gas
According to a 1941 newspaper advertisement, cooking with gas originated in vaudeville and indicated that a performer “had ‘arrived’ or … had become established as leaders in their profession. In other words, ‘Now You’re Cooking With Gas’ meant the performer was appearing in communities where gas, instead of coal or wood, was used for cooking.” Whether that etymology is true or not, the phrase definitely became popularized thanks to the radio programs of people like Bob Hope and Jack Benny. Today, the most popular explanation of its origins is that it was a gas industry campaign to convince consumers to use gas instead of electricity when replacing traditional wood-burning kitchen stoves.
First a literal ball of corn—in 1843, cornball was defined as a “sweetmeat made of popped corn or maize”—the word became slang in 1949, referring to an “unsophisticated person.” Just two years later, it evolved to more specifically describe someone who has an old-fashioned or “corny” sense of humor.
It might come as a shock that this simple, three-letter interjection wasn’t born in the ‘80s or ’90s. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), it originated in 1943, with its first recorded use in the Warner Bros. cartoon series Merrie Melodies, starring Bugs Bunny. Unlike its more recent intent to be derisive, in the 1940s, it was purely used to evoke stupidity. In fact, Merriam-Webster’s original definition for the word is an expression of “actual or feigned ignorance or stupidity.”
5. Eager Beaver
If you’ve ever come across an excessively hard-working person, you’d likely call them an “eager beaver.” Although the phrase certainly alludes to the animal—beavers are industrious creatures, building watertight dams and engineering whole lodges with at least two underwater entrances to evade predators—eager beaver wasn’t popularized along a river, but instead on the frontlines of World War II. According to a 1942 dispatch, it referred to a soldier “imbued with the desire to please his superiors with a show of exuberance for unpleasant tasks which his buddies look upon with distaste.”
6. and 7. Gen and Genned Up
Just as FYI is modern-day shorthand for for your information, people in the 1940s had their own abbreviation for similarly important intel. If someone were hoping to obtain relevant, or general, information, they were in search of gen. And if they got all the info they required? They were genned up.
If you’ve ever listened to an unending lecture or read the fine print of an instruction manual, you’ve most certainly come across a bit of gobbledygook, which the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English defines as “pompous, long-winded, vague speech or writing, heavily laced with jargon.” It was first coined in a 1944 memo by Maury Maverick, who was then the chairman of the Smaller War Plants Corporation. He banned his staff from using such language: “Stay off the gobbledygook language. It only fouls people up. For the Lord’s sake, be short and say what you’re talking about.” It caught on immediately: Just a few months later, Maverick wrote about coining the term in The New York Times Magazine.
9., 10., and 11. Hitting the Sauce, Sauce-Hound, and Sauced Up
It’s no surprise that with the end of Prohibition in the early 1930s, there would be a boon in new ways to describe the act of drinking alcohol and experiencing its intoxicating effects. By 1939, people were using sauced to describe being fully drunk. The next year, sauce was used to describe an alcoholic drink itself in John Henry O’Hara’s Pal Joey, in which a character “almost began hitting the sauce.” By extension, “a drunkard” or “an alcoholic,” per Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, were labeled sauce-hounds, while sauced up described someone who was tipsy.
Hipsters as they are identified today—young people attuned to the latest trends, particularly if they are seen as counter-culture—aren’t all that different to those first characterized as such in the Jazz Age. The early 1940s label described jazz musicians and fans. Hipster was cribbed from terms first used by the Black community: the jazz term hep (or hip), meaning “up to date,” and hepster. In fact, the latter term was used in the creation of Hepster’s Dictionary, a listing of 200 Harlem musician expressions used by “hep cats” circa 1938.
Synonymous with boss, honcho was adapted from the Japanese word hanchō, which means “leader of the squad, section, or group.” The term was brought back to the United States by the large presence of servicemen stationed in Japan during the occupation following World War II.
Those living in the 1940s sure had a thing with rhyming, and khaki-wacky is perhaps the most overt expression of this particular slang style. Green’s Dictionary of Slang first cited it in 1943, in the midst of World War II, and described it as a woman “enamoured of men in military uniform.”
15. Party Pooper
Ever wonder who the world’s first party pooper was? Allegedly, the expression debuted in the late 1940s among college students, with its first known use in 1947. Four years later, Newsweek wrote about the term, stating that the party pooper had “taken the place of ‘wall flower’ or ‘wet blanket.’” Meanwhile, Green’s Dictionary of Slang defines this “spoilsport” in far worse terms: “one who sabotages the pleasures and enjoyments of their companions, whether at a party or other amusement.”
16. Sack Out
Nowadays, you might say you’re “hitting the sack” before going to sleep, but back in the 1940s, the bedtime slang was sack out. Much like the term hitting the hay, this phrase reportedly harkened back to when people slept on sacks stuffed with—you guessed it—hay.
Well before there was any talk of a double whammy, there was the singular whammy, a neologism—likely created by adding a -y ending to wham, meaning “a solid blow”—that was regularly used in the ‘40s to describe “a supernatural power bringing bad luck,” according to Merriam-Webster.
18. What’s Buzzin’, Cousin?
Sure, a simple “what’s up?” will suffice these days, but back in the 1940s, if you wanted to see how someone was doing, you’d say, “what’s buzzin’, cousin?” The term gained popularity following the release of the 1943 American musical film by the same name.
Are you a logophile? Do you want to learn unusual words and old-timey slang to make conversation more interesting, or discover fascinating tidbits about the origins of everyday phrases? Then pick up our new book, The Curious Compendium of Wonderful Words: A Miscellany of Obscure Terms, Bizarre Phrases, & Surprising Etymologies, out June 6! You can pre-order your copy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, or Bookshop.org.