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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Expressions through the years

A typical "juke joint" in Louisiana circa 1930s. You probably wouldn't want to "mouth off" in there on a Saturday night. (Library of Congress)

I love films of the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s. The cars are great, the street scenes in cities have a nostalgic look, and the dialogue is tremendous.

They had their own hip expressions in those days. I watch a lot of films on Turner Classic Movies and they have the best examples: When a woman would give guys like Humphrey Bogart or Spencer Tracy a hard time, they were likely to hear an annoyed “Listen, sister!” A common definition for women was “dames” as in: “Those dames don’t know nothin’". A woman’s legs were “gams” and a woman who consorted with gangsters was a “moll.” A dependable secretary or assistant to a man was known as “his girl Friday.” I suppose that was a takeoff on Defoe’s man Friday from Robinson Crusoe.

Girls were also called “sugar” and if they wouldn’t shut up were told to “quit flappin’ your lips!” Many times a good looking girl was referred to as a “Jill”, “dish”, “babe”, “doll”, or a “looker.” A woman who thought she was really something was referred to as the “Queen of Sheba.” Sometimes when a guy was pursuing a woman he was said to be “chasing skirt.”

If you were surprised or amazed by something, you were a “monkey’s uncle.” If you went to a lower end bar or club with music and dancing, you went to a “juke joint.” If you were given a drugged up drink in that juke joint you were “slipped a Mickey Finn.” If you were in an embarrassing situation, you were said to be “in the hot seat” but if you got lucky in a juke joint you may have received a “smooch” (kiss) from a babe. If you were rich you had “folding money.”

Everyone wanted to have as much as their friends or neighbors and when they did they were said to be “keeping up with the Joneses.” That expression leaked into the fifties, the decade when rock music was born along with “tough guy” punks and hoods.

By this time, the Bohemians of the 1920’s had evolved into the 1950’s “beatniks”. Beatniks were early day “hippies” as they were called in the 60’s. They were basically people who were trying to find themselves and figured the way to do it was through drugs and saying “hey, man” a lot. It was also a convenient way to find an excuse not to work, take baths, or get haircuts.

The punks and hoods of the fifties liked to refer to people in positions of authority as “Daddy-O.” For a good example of this see The Blackboard Jungle (1955) with Glenn Ford, Sidney Poitier, and gorgeous Ann Francis.

The old terminology will probably return some day as almost everything gets recycled. So, if you think something is “cool” today you may someday be saying it was “keen”, “boss”, “neat”, or maybe an entirely new word.

To leave a comment or to read the other 49 comments, click "Jim's azcentral blog" in the right column under links. You will not receive a virus. Jim McAllister writes for The Arizona Republic in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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