Downton Abbey came back for its fourth season last night (for our more law-abiding North American readers anyway), and that talkie is the cat’s. I’m not just beating my gums here — the ’20s were the start of our modern pop-culture age, and the slang was the bee’s knees.
Incorporate some of these phrases and you’ll sound like your favorite sheik or sheba in no time!
23 skidoo! – leave quickly
- Example: The coppers are busting the gin mill. 23 skidoo!
And how! – I agree with you SO HARD.
Herman: Those flappers sure are showing a lot of ankle!
Hattie (showing a lot of ankle): And how!
Bank’s Closed: stop making out
- Example: It’s a speakeasy, not a hootenanny. Bank’s closed, Sam and Ida!
Beat one’s gums – to talk a lot of nonsense
- Example: Lula says the stock market’s going to tank, but I think she’s just beating her gums.
Beef – a complaint. Actually, just like how we use it now. Thanks, ’20s!
Myrtle: What’s your beef?
Maude: You borrowed my stockings and got rouge all over the knees!
bee’s knees – really, really awesome
- Example: Boy, Josephine, these movies that you have to read sure are the bee’s knees!
bimbo – a macho, overly manly man
blind date – a date with a stranger. Actually, just like how we use it now. No thanks, ’20s!
blotto – drunk
- Example: Mabel is completely blotto off that moonshine!
bubs – boobs, but way more fun to say
- Example: Now Mabel’s showing her bubs! Geraldine, get her home!
cancelled stamp – a shy, wallflower-y girl who’s not very fun.
- Example: Say what you will about Mabel, at least she’s not a cancelled stamp like old Gertie!
cat’s pajamas – particularly great. Often abbreviated to just “the cat’s.”
dead soldier – empty beer bottle
- Example: Clean the dead soldiers off the field, boys! A football game’s starting and they could scratch our leather helmets!
drugstore cowboy – a guy who hangs out in public trying to look good and pick up ladies. See: the text of No Scrubs.
- Example: Bernice bobs her hair, and next thing you know she’s taken off with some drugstore cowboy!
Dumb Dora – an unintelligent lady
- Example: Maxine’s such a Dumb Dora – you can get better conversation out of a silent film!
gasper – cigarette
- Example: Harold says that gaspers can make you sick, but I think he’s just beating his gums.
giggle water – booze
- Example: Slow your roll, Mabel. Enough of that giggle water.
half-seas over – drunk
- Example: Mabel is completely half-seas over off that moonshine!
handcuff – engagement ring
- Example: George has the handcuff on ol’ Thelma and he’s never at the speakeasy anymore.
icy mitt – to coldly blow off a person who’s trying to get with you
Let George do it – something that you’d say to get out of work.
- Example: I don’t want to work on my financial planning for 1929. Ah, let George do it!
Moll – a gangster’s lady-friend
Moll: No, Irene, this is just the name my parents gave me. I’m not affiliated with the mafia. But I hope my great-granddaughter will be named after me, because what are the chances that the name Molly would be associated with a seedy subculture again in 100 years?
ossified – drunk.
- Example: Mabel is completely ossified off that moonshine!
quilt – an alcoholic beverage that keeps you warm
Mabel: I sure am cold after that sledding party! Somebody get me a quilt.
Ethel: Oh, you’ve had quite enough, Mabel.
petting pantry – a movie theater. Still relevant for anyone who’s gone to the movies only to realize that it was apparently the couple’s show.
- Example: Let’s go to the petting pantry! There’s a new Louise Brooks flick. And I want to make out.
So’s your old man – a response to somebody who said something that irritated you. Sort of a “your mama” for the 1920s crowd.
Phyllis: I saw your beau Jimbo at the petting party with Olive. He’s courting a hussy!
Gladys: So’s your old man!
sheba – girlfriend (or a good-looking lady). For millenials, that usually translates to “this girl I’m kind of hanging out with, I don’t know.”
- Example: Arthur’s sheba is Lucille.
sheik – boyfriend (or a good-looking man). Millenials: “that guy I’ve been seeing or whatever, not really sure what we are.”
- Example: Lucille’s sheik is Roy. Don’t tell Arthur.
spifflicated – drunk
- Example: Mabel is completely splifficated off that moonshine!
struggle buggy – a car’s backseat
- Example: Wow, it sure is easier to neck in a struggle buggy than it was in a regular buggy! I always felt like the horses were watching.
Tell it to Sweeney! – I don’t believe you. Tell it to someone who does.
- Example: Sick from gaspers, Harold?! Tell it to Sweeney!
zozzled – drunk
- Example: Mabel is completely zozzled off that moonshine! I think she might have a problem.
Old trends don’t die as soon as a new one starts. Case in point: 40-something women who still dress like they did in the class of ’87. So, some of the early ’20s Downtoners were still using their World War I and Edwardian-era slang. It’s not too late to start using these words, too:
balmy on the crumpet – crazy
blue devils – feeling down in the dumps
- Example: Aminta has the blue devils because her best corset just broke.
beaver – a man’s beard
Jonesy: Why the long face, Jamesy?
Jamesy (whose face is hairless): I can’t give Clorinda what she wants. I’m a baby-faced boy, but she likes the beaver.
Jonesy: Perhaps she can find a beard elsewhere.
boner – a mistake
Ronald: I made a real boner while I was courting Flossie in her parents’ parlor. I think I really ruined my chances.
Donald: A boner while courting in her parents’ parlor? What was it?
Ronald: A boner while courting in her parents’ parlor.
cheese it! – stop it!
- Example: Cheese it, Edmund! You have to take your cod-liver oil!
clergyman’s daughter – a whore
- Example: Bridget’s a clergyman’s daughter, and mark my words, in ten years her little Mabel will be just as bad.
cootie – crabs
- Example: Bridget has cooties.
curtains – the end
- Example: So… I guess that means it’s curtains for you and Bridget, then?
fittums – a great fit
jumping jesus – a fanatic
- Example: I mean, I’m as excited about the coronation as anyone, but Nigel is a bit of a jumping jesus about the whole thing.
off his chump – crazy
- Example: Now Henrietta wants to vote, as well? She’s off her chump.
pad the hoof – walking
- Example: Ready to pad the hoof to the magic lantern show? It’s really the best entertainment option at this point in history.
pipe off – lose interest (in a romantic relationship)
Edwardine: Why did you pipe off Simon?
Thomasine: He spent more time with his hair tonic than I did on my pompadour!
Razzle-dazzle – to go out there, stir up some trouble, and get some ladies!
Bert: Shall we go razzle-dazzle, Simon?
Simon: I’m actually less interested in razzle-dazzling than you might think.
Teagie – tea gown
- Example: You know, calling it a teagie makes it seem like it would be pretty casual, but it takes like three handmaids to change into this thing.
What priced head have you? – How bad’s the hangover?
- Example: You really hit the music-hall hard, Basil. What priced head have you?
yeah – yes
Charles: In 100 years’ time, will old people still get mad when you say “yeah” instead of “yes?”