Every decade has its own slang. The slang terminology that became popular during the 1930s is a type of jargon that is completely unique to the spirit of the time. Slang from the 1930s embodies the history of what was going on in the world during that time, as well as a fusion of everything that was considered "cool" during the era.
Much of the popular slang of the 1930s consists of widely recognizable words that are used today, some in the same way they were used back in the day. However, some of the slang words from the 1930s have since taken on a different meaning.
- abyssinia - quick way of saying "I'll be seeing you." (If you say it really fast you will be able to actually hear it as you say the word.)
- aces - excellent
- apple - a large city (Everyone has heard of New York City referred to as "the big apple," but in the 1930s, the word apple was a slang term used to describe any big city.)
- blow your wig - get excited
- broad/dame/doll - slang for a woman
- bumping gums - making conversation, but of no substance
- canary - female singer
- cats/alligators - fans of swing music
- cement mixer - a person who is terrible at dancing
- city juice - a glass of water; used to refer to city water
- crumb - unsuccessful or unreliable person
- dog soup - a glass of water; used to refer to those who can’t afford to drink anything else
- five spot - five dollars
- hep cat - someone who loves jazz music
- horn - telephone
- hot mama/looker/tomato/dish/sweet patootie - good-looking woman
- kibosh - put a stop to something
- lincolns - five dollar bills (because they have Abraham Lincoln’s image)
- make tracks - to leave; putting distance between yourself and where you were
- slugburger - hamburger patty made with ground beef mixed with slightly stale bread
- squat - zero, nothing
Following closely on the heels of prohibition, alcohol use came out of the shadows in the 1930s. A number of interesting slang terms for drugs and alcohol became part of the vernacular during this era.
- booze - whiskey
- cadillac - an ounce of cocaine or heroin
- giggle juice - whiskey
- hooch - whiskey
- jive - marijuana
- muggles - marijuana
weed - marijuana
Quite a bit of slang related to coppers and criminals originated during the 1930s. A lot of slang terminology that is still used in law enforcement and to refer to criminal activities can be traced back to this era.
- big house - prison (First used in the 1930s, this slang term for prison is still used today.)
- bust out - to escape from jail or prison
- buzzer - badge indicating someone is a law enforcement officer
- Chicago overcoat - a coffin. (There was a ton of gang violence in Chicago during the 1930s so it was not uncommon for the word "Chicago" to be used as a lead word for a slang term relative to violence.)
- Chicago typewriter/Tommy gun - Thompson machine gun; also known as the Tommy Gun
- convincer/gat/heater/rod - slang for gun; used interchangeably with gat, heater or rod
- copper - police officer (Look closely and you will notice that part of this word is still used to refer to a police officer. Instead of a "cop" in the 1930s a police officer was called a copper.)
- dick/gumshoe/flatfoot - a detective (If you think about the character Dick Tracy, you may remember that he was a detective during the 1930s. Dick was a slang word for detective back then, so basically they were calling him Detective Tracy in the vernacular of the time.)
- goons - enforcers, tough guys
- trigger men - hired gunmen
It has been long said that if the 1930s were a book, it would begin with the Great Depression and end with the beginning of the second World War. It was the fourth decade in the twentieth century history of the United States, the country's darkest hour, yet quite possibly one of the most social decades of all.
Despite the toll taken by the Great Depression, the spirit of the times fused the tension of the era with social realism. As a result, there evolved the slang of the 1930s - a now lost treasure, or dissonant charm, this was the slang that encouraged lost minds to awaken to new hope and forge ahead toward their dreams. For more insights about this decade, review a selection of quotes about the 1930s. If you’re more interested in slang itself, explore the history of American slang words.