20 Delightful Slang Terms From the 1930s

These 1930s-era slang terms will blow your wig.

Are these two kaylied up, or are they merely drinking dog’s water?
Are these two kaylied up, or are they merely drinking dog’s water? / George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images (couple), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (speech bubble)

Don’t you hate it when some kaylied up nogoodnik blows your wig at the juke? If you’ve ever been there, or if you have no idea what that means, here are 20 slang terms from the 1930s that you can floss.

1. Nogoodnik

Given that the suffix -nik denotes a person associated with something, nogoodnik is, expectedly, a word for someone who’s nothing but trouble.

2. Bazillion

The largest number we have a name for is the googolplex, or 10 raised to the 10^100 power. In the 1930s, people had a less precise approach to unfathomable quantities—they used bazillion to exaggerate large and indefinite numbers of things.

3. Blow One’s Wig

A man with his toupee flying off
The 1930s-era slang term ‘blow one’s wig’ has a couple of meanings. / John M Lund Photography Inc/DigitalVision/Getty Images

A bazillion of something, whether dollars in your bank account or cars in a line of traffic, might make you blow your wig. In the former situation, the phrase would refer to feelings of happiness or excitement, but according to Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, blowing one’s wig could also refer to someone feeling furious—which could definitely be the case in the latter situation.

4. Ackamarackus

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ackamarackus is exactly what it sounds like—“pretentious nonsense.” It’s the 1930s equivalent of malarkey or bosher. The word seems to have first appeared in the phrase the old ackamarackus, which the OED traces back to a 1933 column in Collier’s: “A monocle in one eye ... is strictly the old ackamarackuss.”

5. Eighty-six

If you’ve worked in the food service industry or been to an American diner, you’ve likely used the phrase eighty-six in reference to something left off a menu. In the ’30s, eighty-six referred to a sold-out food item at a restaurant. Over time, the phrase became more frequently used as a verb meaning “to refuse service” or “to throw out.” The exact etymology is unclear, as Merriam-Webster notes, but there are plenty of theories about where the term actually came from.

6. Dog’s Soup

The Big Thirst
That’s a big glass of dog’s soup! / George W. Hales/GettyImages

Asking a server to bring you some dog’s soup while you browse the menu might result in a worried glance today, but back in the ’30s, a thirsty patron ordering some dog’s soup would be granted a fresh glass of water. The phrase was coined sometime in the mid-19th century as slang for rainwater, but evolved in the 1930s and became popular in the U.S. as slang for drinking water.

7. Boondoggle

The next time you’re tasked with tedious or impractical busywork, it may break a bit of tension to call it a “boondoggle.” The term describes a frivolous waste of time, and it’s certainly fun to say.

According to Merriam-Webster, a possible origin for boondoggle stems from American scoutmaster Robert H. Link, who coined the term to describe the braided leather tassels worn by Boy Scouts. This meaning spread in the 1920s, and the word had come to its current meaning by the mid-1930s, per the OED.

8. Juke

Jitterbugging on Saturday Night
A juke joint in Mississippi, 1939. / Historical/GettyImages

For decades, jukes were the primary spot, especially throughout the South, where Black communities came together to eat, drink, and dance. Zora Neale Hurston (who spelled it jook) praised them in the 1930s as “musically speaking ... the most important place in America” [PDF].

According to the OED, the word likely comes from Gullah, an English-based creole language spoken primarily by Black Americans living along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia—specifically the word juke or joog, meaning “disorderly, wicked.” Multiple West African languages have similar words: Wolof, for example, has jug, and Banbara has the word jugu, meaning “a violent person.” Juke may have also evolved from Haitian or French; jwe and jouer, respectively, both mean “play.”

9. Cockamamie

According to the OED, when cockamamie was first coined in 1931, it was a children’s slang term that referred to decal applied to skin, like a temporary tattoo. By 1936, it had come to be used as an adjective to describe “a ridiculous, crazy, or wildly eccentric person.”

10. Kaylied Up

Woman drinking champagne (France). Ca. 1930.
This woman drinking champagne circa 1930 is definitely about to get kaylied up. / adoc-photos/GettyImages

Anyone who had too much to drink at a juke would get kaylied up, or “extremely drunk” per the OED.

11. Gobsmacked

Someone’s impressive, unexpected floss could leave you gobsmacked, British slang for “flabbergasted, astounded; speechless or incoherent with amazement,” per the OED. Coined in 1935 as the compound of gob (“mouth”) and smack (in this context meaning either “to slap” or “to make a noise when separating your lips”), gobsmacked combines the two meanings to evoke imagery of slapping one’s hand over their mouth in shock, or dropping one’s jaw in surprise.

12. Meat Wagon

1936 Daimler 25Hp Straight Eight Hearse By J.C. Clark. Creator: Unknown.
A meat wagon from 1936. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Naturally, people living in the Depression era would use some morbid slang. Meat wagon is a prime example. While the term was first used in 1925 as a synonym for an ambulance, its meaning evolved around a decade later, becoming a  grisly synonym for a hearse in 1934.

13. Nitwittery

Nitwittery is a particularly posh-sounding word for stupidity. Next time you’re in a tussle with some cockamamie, it might give you a leg up to whip out this word. You might not win, but you’ll certainly sound smart.

14. Off the Cob

Corn Harvest Underway In Brandenburg
You probably don’t want to be off the cob. / Sean Gallup/GettyImages

The Great Depression didn’t stop people from making clever puns. Off the cob describes someone whose style or mannerisms are unfashionable or banal. Simply put, it means they’re corny.

15. Chicago Overcoat

Close-up shot of the side of a wooden coffin
It’s not a coffin, it’s a ‘Chicago overcoat.’ / Philippe TURPIN/Photononstop/Getty Images

Traveling in the Windy City may require an overcoat, but that’s not what this term is referring to. Despite the major decline in Chicago homicide rates between 1930 and 1940 compared to previous decades, the city still had a murderous enough reputation to warrant this term for a coffin, which first popped up in the 1939 book The Big Sleep. Detective novelist Raymond Chandler—whose novel takes place in southern California, not Chicago—put his own spin on overcoat, which had been used to refer to coffins since the late 19th century.

16. Seat-of-the-pants

According to a 1935 issue of Popular Science Weekly, the phrase flying by the seat-of-the-pants could have actual avian origins. “Blind flying,” they explained, “was known as ‘seat-of-the-pants’ flying, for fog-bound pilots without instruments soon learned to tell whether they were flying right-side-up by the pressure against their parachute packs.” According to the OED, the phrase has two meanings: When used in reference to a person, it means “tending to act instinctively, spontaneously, or expediently”; when used in reference to an activity, it means “done on the basis of practical experience rather than technical knowledge; informal; inexact.”  To fly by the seat-of-the-pants and make spontaneous plans could lead to a ripsnort of a time. Or it could be a complete boondoggle. Who’s to say?

17. Ripsnort

On Holiday
These ladies on holiday circa 1930 are the very definition of ‘ripsnort.’ / Fox Photos/GettyImages

Everyone’s ripsnorted at the juke one time or another. To ripsnort is to behave in an exceedingly jovial or boisterous manner. At least, it meant that in the 1930s—over time, it became one of many slang terms for a very loud fart.

18. Simpy

These days, when you hear the word simp, you probably think of the Gen Z slang term meaning “someone who is submissive to a potential partner.” But there’s an even earlier simp, which dates back to the early 1900s, as well as simpy, which the OED traces back to 1932. Simpy means “weak, ineffectual; soft, [and] ‘wimpy,’” as well as “foolish, [and] simple-minded,” and both it and the original simp stem from the words simple or simpleton, “an unintelligent, ignorant, or gullible person.”

19. On Sus

Another slang term 1930s people have in common with Gen-Z, sus, according to the OED, is an abbreviation of suspicion or suspect, and indicates a feeling that questionable activities are afoot. While today’s youth tend to use the word as an adjective (“you’ve been acting pretty sus”), sus was used as a noun in the ’30s and often preceded by on. If one was on sus, they were suspected of committing a crime or some other nefarious act.

20. Floss

Poultry Twins
These ladies are definitely going to be flossing about their prize-winning chickens. / Fox Photos/GettyImages

You may associate the word flossing with dental hygiene, but the verb for the activity dentists recommend you do between your teeth is surprisingly recent—according to the OED, that meaning didn’t pop up until the 1970s (though dentists were recommending the use of floss in the mid-1930s). In 1938, floss or flossing was synonymous with flirting or showing off, especially about one’s possessions. Perhaps this list of historical vocabulary will give you the chance to show off how smart you are—a “mental floss,” if you will.