Slang: From the 20s to the 50s


When living vintage most aspects of life are adjusted to it. You look like a 1950s pin-up, you walk like a 1940s hollywood star but how about notalk like an average gal of the 40s or the 50s? Well, that’s why I decided to make a post about the slang of the 40s & 50s, since slang describes a certain social culture and time.

Slang in general Slang is the use of informal words and expressions that are not considered standard in the speaker’s language or dialect but are considered more acceptable when used socially. Slang is often to be found in areas of the lexicon that refer to things considered taboo. It is often used to identify with one’s peers and, although it may be common among young people, it is used by people of all ages and social groups.

Slang in the Fifties Slang has always been the province of the young. Words come in and out of favor in direct proportion to the speed with which they travel through the age ranks. Once college kids know that high school kids are using a term, it becomes passe. And seniors don’t want to sound like freshman and so forth. Once a word finds its way to mainstream media or worse, is spoken by parents, no young person with any self-respect would use it. Fifties slang wasn’t particularly colorful as these things go. The Sixties, with its drug and protest culture to draw from, would be slang heaven. In the Fifties, hot-rodders and Beats provided inspiration.

The 50s were a very interesting time period not just for America but for slang. Some people say it was the best time of American history. Television was entering every living room in our country, while segregation and racism was still part of life. Rules were strict for women. We were obligated to stay at home and make sure dinner was ready for the “breadwinner.” Children were to be seen and not heard; however, with rock and roll beginning to hit the air waves, teens were discovering new found freedoms and men’s hair was getting longer with side burns and a dab of grease to keep it in place. Women became more daring in how they dressed as they began to wear full skirts and tight-fitting blouses, and young men donned jeans and leather coats. Not only were the times changing, so was the language. Today let’s salute the 50s by looking at their slang.” – Tyler Woods

So here’s a list with the most common words and phrases, enjoy hep cats & kittens!

1920’s to 1940’s Phrases & Slang

Alligator – swing fans or dancers

 All Wet – Describes an erroneous idea or individual, as in, «he’s all wet.»

Ameche – to telephone
Applesauce – an explative; same as horsefeathers, As in «Ah applesauce!»
Bag – to shoot down a plane
Barouche – car, jalopyBrainchild- someone’s creative idea
Big Cheese – The most important or influential person; boss. Same as big shot.
Bluenose – An excessively puritanical person, a prude, Creator of «the Blue Nozzle Curse.»
Broad – Woman, Dame
Bump Off – To murder, To kill.
Bunny – to chat
B.Y.T.- bright young thing
Carry a Torch – To have a crush on someone.
Cast an eyeball – look around
Cat’s Meow – Something splendid or stylish; The best or greatest, wonderful.
City slicker – dandy from the city
Corny – unimportant, passé
Cozy – comfortable
Creep – despicable person
Darb – An excellent person or thing (as in «the Darb» – a person with money who can be relied on to pay the check).
Dame– A Woman
Dead hoofer – poor dancer
Dig – like
Dillinger – fantastic
Drag a hoof – dancer
Drape – clothes, suit
Drugstore Cowboy – a guy that hangs around on a street corner trying to pick up girls.
Duchess – girl
Dumb Dora – a stupid female.
Eager Beaver – enthusiastic helper
Fade – leave
Fall Guy – Victim of a frame.
Fifth avenue – high class
Flat Tire – A dull witted, insipid, disappointing date. Same as pill, pickle, drag, rag, oilcan.
Frame – To give false evidence, to set up someone.
Frolic – dance
Frolic pad – nightclub
Fuddy-duddy – old-fashioned person
Gams – A woman’s legs.
Gammin’ – strutting, showing off
Giggle Water – An intoxicating beverage; alcohol.
Gin Mill – An establishment where hard liquor is sold; bar.
Ginned up – dressed up
Gobbledygook – double talk, long speech
Gone with the wind – run off (with money)
Got your boots on – understand what’s happening
Grandstand – to show off
Grotty – new but useless
Ground grippers – shoes
Hard Boiled – a tough, strong guy.
Have a ball – have a good time
Heebie-Jeebies – The jitters.
Hep cats – swing music lovers, dancers (male)
Hep kittens – swing music lovers, dancers (female)
High-Hat – To snub.
Hi-de-ho – hello
Hincty – snobby
Hooch – Bootleg liquor
Hoofer – Dancer.
Hoof – dance
Hopper – Lindy Hop dancer
Horsefeathers – an explative; same usage as applesauce.
Hotsy-Totsy – Pleasing.
In cahoots with – conspiring with
In the groove – very good
Jalopy – Old car.
Joint – A club, usually selling alcohol.
Jump – sing dance
Keen – Attractive or appealing.


Kicks– shoes
Kisser – Mouth.
Lettuce – money
Line – Insincere flattery.
Lounge Lizard – a horny dog.
Niftic – good, sharp
Moll – A gangster’s girl.
Off-time jive – bad manners, incorrect
Old hat – out dated
Ossified – a drunk person.
Pass the buck – pass responsibility for
Pennies from heaven – easy money
Pinch – To arrest.
Pulleys – suspenders
Pushover – A person easily convinced or seduced.
Ritzy – Elegant (from the hotel).
Rug cutters – dancers
Scene – situation
Scram – Ask someone to leave immediately.
Sheba – A woman with sex appeal (from the move Queen of Sheba) or (e.g. Clara Bow).
Sheik – A man with sex appeal (from the Valentino movies)
Smooth – good, agreeable
Soitently – Sure!
Speakeasy – An illicit bar selling bootleg liquor.
Spiffy – An elegant appearance.
Spread Out! – Get out of the way! Give me some room! Stop crowding me!
Stompers – shoes
Striders – trousers
Stuck On – Having a crush on.
Swanky – Ritzy.
Swell – Wonderful.
Togged to the bricks – wearing best clothes
Upchuck – To vomit when one has drunk too much.
Wise guy– A Smart Ass
Whoopee – To have a good time.


1950’s Slang

Agitate the Gravel – To leave
Are you writing a book? – You’re asking too many questions
Axe – An instrument
Back seat bingo – Necking in a car
Bad News – Depressing Person
Bash – Great Party
Bent eight – a V-8 engine (hot-rodders)
Big daddy – An older person
Big tickle – Really funny
Blast – A good time
Blow off – To defeat in a race (hot-rodders)
Bobbed – Shortened
Boss – Great
Bread – Money
Burn rubber – To accelerate hard and fast (hot-rodders)
Cast an eyeball – To look
Cat – A hip person
Chariot – Car
Cherry – Anything really attractive
Chrome-plated – Dressed up (hot-rodders, originally)
Circled – Married
Classy chassis – Great body
Cloud 9 – Really happy
Clutched – Rejected
Cook, cookin’ – Doing it well
Cooties – Imaginary infestations of the truly un-cool
Cranked – Excited (Beats)
Crazy «Like crazy,man» – Implies an especially good thing
Cruisin’ for a bruisin’ – Looking for trouble
Cube – A normal person
Cut the gas – Be quiet!
Daddy-O – Term of address
Dig – To understand; to approve
Don’t have a cow – Don’t get so excited
Earthbound – Reliable
Epistle – Letter
Fake out – Bad date
Fetch – Go get
Flat-top – Men’s hairstyle. A crewcut which is flat across the top
Flick – A movie
Flip – To get very excited
Floor it – Push the accelerator to the floor
Fream – Someone who doesn’t fit in
Frosted – Angry
Germsville – A place with germs
Get Bent! – Disparaging remark as in «drop dead»
Get with it – Understand
Gig – Work, job
Goof – Someone who makes mistakes
Goopy – Messy
Greaser – A guy with tons of grease in his hair
Gringles – Worries
Grody – Sloppy, messy or dirty
Haul a** – Drive very fast
Heat – Police
Hip – Someone who is cool, in the know; very good
Horn – Telephone
Hottie -A very fast car (hot-rodders)
In orbit – In the know
Jacked Up – Car with raised rear end.
Jacketed – Going steady.
Jets – Smart, Brains
Kookie – Nuts, in the nicest possible ways
Lid – Hat
Made in the shade – Success guaranteed
Make out – Kissing session
No sweat – No problem
Nowheresville – a boring, bad place to be
Pad – Home
Paper shaker – Cheerleader or Pom Pom girl
Party pooper – No fun at all
Passion Pit– Drive in movies
Peepers – Glasses
Rap – To talk
Rattle your cage – Get upset
Raunchy – Messy or gross in some other way
Razz my berries – Excite or impress me
Shot down – Failed
Sides– Vinyl Records
Slip me – Give me
Spaz – Someone who is uncoordinated, a clutz
Split – Leave
Square – A boring person or a do gooder
The man – Police
Threads – Clothes
Tight – Good friends
Total – To completely destroy, most often in reference to a car
Tune out – Go away
Unreal – Exceptional
Wet rag – Someone who is just no fun
Word from the bird – The truth

Expression to die for!

Balloon lungs – A brass man with plenty of wind.
That cat must have «balloon lungs,» Stix said he held that note for three and half minutes!»
Barn Burner – Originally in Sinatra slang this was a stylish, classy woman, but today, it can even be applied to a good football game.
Hey, Quincy, did you see Stella over at the diner? Man, she is one amazing «barn burner.»
Barrelhouse – Barrelhouse was the colloquial term for a cabaret in New Orleans where liquor was served. Barrelhouse music is the type of music played in one of these cabarets.
Hey, Man, I dig this «barrelhouse» music. It flows free.
Beat – Exhausted or tired.
Man, we been blowin’ all night. I’m really «beat.»
Birdbrain – A Charlie Parker imitator.
It’s 1957 already. We need something new. I’m gettin’ tired of all of the «Birdbrains» around these days..
Blow – A jazzman’s term for playing any instrument.
That European guy, Django Reinhardt, can really «blow.»
Blow your top – A phrase which expresses enthusiasm or exasperation.
Hey man, I know it’s tough, but don’t «blow your top.»
The Bomb – Very cool.
The Crusader’s new disc, «Louisiana Hot Sauce» is «the bomb.»
Boogie Man – In the jazz slanguage of 1935, this was a critic.
Roscoe just waxed a great disc and the «boogie man» gave it a bad review.
Boogie Woogie – An early piano blues form that was popularized in Chicago. The term has sexual overtones.
Hey, Lester, dig that «boogie woogie» that Yancy is layin’ down.
Bose Bouncing – To play notes so low as to bounce a Bose speaker from its foundation.
I’m sorry, my bass player was just «Bose bouncing.
Bread – A jazzman’s word for money.
Alright, Jack, if ya want me to play, ya gotta come up with some «bread.»
Break it down – Get hot!! Go to town.
Bring Down or Bringdown – As a verb – to depress. As a noun – one who depresses.
Hey, man, don’t «bring me down» with all of this crazy talk.
Hey, let’s get out of here, that guy is a real «bringdown.»
Bug – To annoy or bewilder.
Man, don’t «bug» me with that jive about cleanin’ up my act.
Burnin – Used to describe a particularly emotional or technically excellent solo.
Hey, man, did you hear that solo by Lee? It was «burnin.»
Can – Jail
Cans – Headphones.
That last take was really kickin’, put on the «cans» and lets record the final take.
Cats – Folks who play jazz music.
I used to partake in late-night jam sessions with the «cats» over at Sid’s.
Changes – Chord progression.
Hey, Pops, dig those «changes» that the Hawk is playin’.
Character – An interesting, out of the ordinary person.
Sonny is certainly a «character.»
Chick – A young and pretty girl.
Hey, Buster, leave it alone. That «chick» is outta your league.
Chill ‘ya – When an unusual «hot» passion gives you goose pimples.
Gee, Jody, doesn’t it «chill ‘ya» the way Benny plays the clarinet?
Chops – The ability to play an instrument, a highly refined technique. Also refers to a brass players facial muscles.
«He played the hell out of that Gershwin; he’s sure got chops.» and «My chops are still achin’ from last nights gig.»
Clams – Mistakes while playing music.
Charlie is really layin’ down some «clams» tonight.
Clinker – A bad note or one that is fluffed.
Hey, Charlie, that was some «clinker» that you just hit.
Combo – Combination of musicians that varies in size from 3 to 10.
Here me talkin’ to ya Lester. Did you see that supreme «combo» that the Hawk put together?
Cool – A restrained approach to music. A superlative which has gained wide acceptance outside of jazz.
That cat Miles Davis plays some «cool» jazz. That cat Miles, is «cool.»
Corny, Cornball – A jazz man’s term for trite, sweet or stale.
Man, Guy Lombardo is one «corny» cat. Man, Guy Lombardo plays some «cornball» music.
Crazy – Another jazz superlative.
Count Basie’s band sure lays down a «crazy» beat.
Crib – Same as pad.
Hey, baby, come on up to my crib awhile and relax.
Crumb – Someone for whom it is impossible to show respect.
Sleazy Eddie is a real «crumb.»
Cut – To leave or depart. Also to completely outdo another person or group in a battle of the bands.
Hey, man, did you see the way that two-bit band «cut» when Basie «cut» them last night.
Dark – Angry or upset (used in the Midwest).
Joe was in a real «dark» mood after Jaco showed up 30 minutes late for the gig.
DeeJay, Disk Jockey – An announcer of records on radio.
Man, he is one crazy «deejay». He spins some cool disks.
Down by law – is to have paid dues; that is, to have earned respect for your talent or ability to «get down.»
Charlie Parker spent years on the road working a lot of dives to fine-tune his craft. He earned every bit of success and recognition he later received. He was «down by law.»
The End – Superlative that is used interchangeably with «too much» or «crazy.»
The way Benny blows the clarinet is «the end.»
Finger Zinger – Someone who plays very fast.
Ignasio the new guitarist is a finger zinger on the guitar. Damn, that boy is incredible!
Flip your lid – Same as «Blow your top.»
That cat looks crazy. I think he’s gonna «flip his lid.»
Freak Lip – A pair of kissers that wear like leather; one who can hit high C’s all night and play a concert the next day.
Ol’ Satchmo, …now he had a pair of «freak lips!»
Gate – Early term for a Jazz musician.
Armstrong is the original Swing Jazz player that’s why they call used to call him «Gate.»
Get Down – To play or dance superlatively with abandon.
Jaco can really «get down» on the 4-string.
Gone – Yet another Jazz superlative.
Lester is a real «gone» cat.
Got your glasses on – you are ritzy or snooty, you fail to recognize your friends, you are up-stage.
Gutbucket – Gutbucket refers to something to store liquor in and to the type of music associated with heavy drinking. An early term for lowdown or earthy music.
That cat Satchmo started out playing some real «gutbucket» in the houses down in New Orleans.
Hand me that skin (later modified to Hand me some skin) – A big expression for «shake, pal.»
Hey, whaddya say Rufus, «hand me some skin.»
Head or Head Arrangement – An arrangement of a song that is not written, but remembered by the band members (the tune and progression to improvise on).
Man, Basie’s band uses a lot of «heads», not those written arrangements. That’s why his band really cooks.
Heat – Solo space.
Yo, man, I want some «heat» on ‘Giant Steps’!
Horn – Any instrument (not necessarily a brass or reed instrument).
That dude can sure blow his «horn.».
A Hot Plate – A hot recording.
Boys, I think we got ourselves a «hot plate.»
I’m Booted – I’m hip or I understand.
It’s cool, man, I know just what you mean, «I’m booted.»
In the Mix – Put it together, make it happen.
Put that cat «in the mix,» we need a drummer for our upcoming tour.
In the Pocket – Refers to the rhythm section being really together as in…
Those guys are really in the pocket, tonight.
Jack – Jazz man’s term for another person. Often used in a negative manner.
Please don’t dominate the rap, «Jack.» Hit the road, «Jack.»
Jake – Okay.
Even though nobody seems to like him, that guy is «jake» with me.
Jam – To improvise.
The band is «jammin’» inside right now.
Jazz Box – a jazz guitar.
The Ibanez PM model was developed in conjunction with Pat Metheny to meet his demand for a true «jazz box»
Jitterbug – A jumpy, jittery energetic dance or one who danced this dance during the swing period.
Artie Shaw is a hot clarinet player. He sure has all of the «jitterbugs» jumpin’.
Jive – A versatile word which can be used as a noun, verb or adjective. Noun – an odd form of speech. Verb – to fool someone. Adjective – phoney or fake.
Old Satchmo can lay down some crazy «jive.» Don’t «jive»me man, I wasn’t born yesterday. That cat is one «jive» dude.
Joe Below – A musician who plays under-scale.
How can you expect to make a buck when «Joe Below» almost plays for free?
Jump – To swing.
Let’s check out that bar over there. It sounds like the joint is «jumpin’.»
Junk – Heroin.
«Junk» and booze have laid a heavy toll on Jazz.
Kill – To fracture or delight.
You «kill» me, man, the way you’re always clowning around.
Lame – Something that doesn’t quite cut it.
Some of the cats that claim to be playin’ Jazz these days are layin’ down some «lame» music.
Licks, hot licks – An early term for phrase or solo.
Louie can really lay down some «hot licks.»
Licorice Stick – Clarinet
Gee, Jody, doesn’t it «chill ‘ya» the way Benny plays that «licorice stick»?
Moldy Fig – During the Bop era, fans and players of the new music used this term to discribe fans and players of the earlier New Orleans Jazz.
What do you expect, Eddie is a «moldy fig» and he’ll never dig the new sounds.
Muggles – One nickname for marijuana used by early Jazzmen (Armstrong has a song by this title).
Hey, Louis, I need to calm down. You got any «muggles?»
My Chops is beat – When a brass man’s lips give out.
Too many high C’s tonight, man, «my chops is beat!!»
Noodlin’ – To just play notes that have no particular meaning to a tune or solo.
Quit «noodlin» cat, let’s start working the tune.
Out of this world – A superlative which is no longer in common use.
I’m tellin’ ya, man, the way Benny Goodman blows is «out of this world.»
Out to Lunch – Same as lame.
That guy is «out to lunch,» I can’t stand the way he plays.
Popsicle Stick – A sax player’s reed.
I’m playing a great popsicle stick.
Rock – To swing or jump (as in Jump bands – the fore-runners of Rock and Roll bands).
Louis Jordan’s band really «rocks.»
Rock and Roll – Of course the new music of the 50’s, but originally slang for sex.
Hey, baby, you’re drivin’ me crazy, let’s «rock and roll.»
Sackbut – The Sackbut was a 16th century instrument, similar to the trombone.
The History of the Sackbut
Scat – Improvise lyrics as nonsense syllables. Said to have originated on the «Hot Five» song «Heebie Jeebies» when Louis Armstrong dropped his lyrics.
I can really dig Dizzy’s new way of singing «scat.»
Schmaltz it – Play it «long-haired.»
Schmaltz or Schmalz – It’s the Yiddish word for chicken fat, and has been a slang term in the U.S. since the ‘20s for anything sickeningly sweet or «greasy», especially music or poetry.
That Lombardo guy is popular, but he sure plays a lot of «schmaltz.»
Screwin’ the Pooch – Really bad mistakes while playing music.
Roscoe must’ve had a bad day, cause he’s really «screwin’ the pooch.»
Send – to move or to stimulate.
Roscoe, you really «send» me.
Sharp – Fashionable.
Hey, Rufus, that’s one «sharp» looking suit of clothes you’re sportin’ there.
Skins player – The drummer. (Skins comes from the days when cowhide or other dried animal skin was used to make drum heads.)
Man, we were all ready to have a little improv jam session but our «skins player» skipped out on us. There’s one cat that I’m gonna skin!
Smokin’ – Playing your ass off.
I can already tell from outside that Jimmy is «smokin’» tonight.
Snap your cap – Same as «Blow your top.»
Hey, Buddy, calm down. Don’t «snap your cap.»
Solid – A swing-era superlative which is little used today.
Little Jazz can blow up a storm, he’s really «solid.»
Split – To leave.
Sorry I can’t stick around Slick, I gotta «split.»
Sugar band – A sweet band; lots of vibrato and glissando.
Supermurgitroid – really cool.
That club was supermurgitroid!
Tag – Used to end the tune, repeating the last phrase three times.
Take five – A way of telling someone to take a five minute break or to take a five minute break.
Hey, Cleanhead, this is a cool tune and we’re blowin’ too hot. We oughta «take five.»
Torch – Used occasionally as a description of a song that expresses unrequited love.
Nobody could sing «torch» songs like Peggy Lee.
Train Wreck – Event during the playing of a tune when the musicians «disagree» on where they are in the form (i.e. someone gets lost), so the chord changes and the melody may get confused for several bars, but depending on the abilities of the musicians (it happens to the best of them), there are usually no fatalities and the journey continues.
Tubs – Set of drums.
Jo is really hot tonight. Listen to him pound those «tubs.».
Two beat – Four-four time with a steady two beat ground beat on the bass drum. New Orleans Jazz.
I can’t dig this «two beat» jazz. My boys got to have four even beats to the measure.
Wail – To play a tune extremely well.
Count Basie did a tune called «Prince of Wails» — a clever play on words. Damn, Basie’s band can really «wail.»
Walking bass or walking rhythm – an energetic four-beat rhythm pattern.
I really dig the way Earl plays the 88’s. He plays the tune with his left hand and a «walking bass» with his right.
Wax a disc – Cut a record.
I just «waxed a disc» up at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio with Jimmy Smith.
Wig, Wig out – To flip out. Also to think precisely.
I don’t know what happened, man, we were just sittin’ there and Louie just «wigged out.»
Wild – Astonishing or amazing.
It’s really «wild» the way Lee plays the trumpet.
Witch Doctor – A member of the clergy.
Have you heard, Margie’s brother is a «witch doctor.»
Zoot – Used in the thirties and forties to describe exaggerated clothes, especially a zoot suit.
Look at that cat’s «zoot» suit. It’s crazy, man.

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40 thoughts on “Slang: From the 20s to the 50s

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