“the cat’s whiskers”, and all that jazz

 

Eastern Vaudeville Bans Unseemly Slang

A general order has been sent out from the Keith office to all Keith, Moss and Proctor vaudeville houses, instructing resident managers to hereafter bar the use by artists of the current slang phrases, “That’s the Cat’s Meow,” “Cat’s Pajamas,” “Hot Dog,” “Hot Cat,” etc. This means the phrases in question are not to be used by artists either in dialogue form or if occurring in popular songs.

from the Oregon Sunday Journal (Portland, Oregon) of 27th November 1921

 

 

Expressions based on various parts of animals’ real or fanciful anatomy and other attributes, such as the cat’s whiskers, the cat’s pajamas, the bee’s knees and the frog’s eyebrows, are or were used to denote an outstandingly good person or thing. Of American-English origin, they are first recorded in the early 1920s. Jocular, they sometimes rest on nonsense as well as alliteration or assonance (as in the bee’s knees).

(It is probably coincidental that an earlier term, cat’s whisker, denoted a fine adjustable copper or gold wire in a crystal wireless receiver or in certain types of electronic circuit. Likewise, there is probably no relation between the American phrase the bee’s knees, denoting an excellent person or thing, and the earlier English and Irish term bee’s knee, designating something small or insignificant.)

The earliest instance of the cat’s whiskers that I have found is from The Shreveport Times (Shreveport, Louisiana) of 16th March 1921. In The Green-Eyed Monster Again: Foes of Gink Fowler Saturated With Envy and Soaking Wet With Malice, “Bugs” Baer, sporting editor, wrote:

Gink Fowler may have been the cat’s whiskers, but the sandpaper collar* goes to Forger Blake, of this city, who won his nickname in a foundry, and not in a bank. After being booted forth from some of the most aristocratic foundries in America for breaking the anvils, Forger became a pug [= a pugilist].

(* sandpaper collar: a jocular attribute of a roughneck)

The fact that the cat’s whiskers is not in quotation marks and that its meaning is not explained shows that it was already well established. The same applies to one of the earliest instances of the bee’s knees, from the column 15 Minutes at Main & Fairfield, in The Bridgeport Telegram (Bridgeport, Connecticut) of 10 November 1921:

The I-told-you-so’s have it and so ordered. It rains. Four cops on the job. McBride lifts three children across puddle of water. He assists the children’s mother. McBride is the bee’s knees when it comes to helping people.

illustration for 15 Minutes at Main & Fairfield in The Bridgeport Telegram (1921)

illustration for 15 Minutes at Main & Fairfield in The Bridgeport Telegram (1921)

 

In A History of Cant and Slang Dictionaries: Volume III: 1859-1936 (2009), Julie Coleman explains that, after the First World War, although the Depression reduced many Americans to abject poverty, others enjoyed unprecedented affluence and leisure. The cities grew, and grew apart from the countryside. They particularly appealed to the young, who were beginning to express their desire for a freer lifestyle through their clothes, hairstyles, and language. Women benefited most of all from changing social standards. Those who were wealthy enough to aspire to an independent life could drive cars, smoke cigarettes, bob their hair, wear scandalously revealing clothes, dance to jazz music, drink in speakeasies, and stay out late without a chaperone. These shockingly liberated flappers and their male companions were identified in part by their language, and this spawned a short-lived flurry of slang glossaries.

One of the first of these glossaries, titled “Argo” [sic] of the Shifters, was published in The New York Times (New York, New York) of 23rd April 1922:

There’s a brand new language abroad in the land, an argot understood only by the initiated. It goes along with brushed wool hats, periwinkle blue and raspberry homespun suits and sporting shoes and stockings. It’s the patois of the wearers of the green earrings and insignia of the Mystic Order of Shifters. It’s the jazz talk of the flappers and their cake-eating escorts.
Who except those dwellers in “Flapperland” knows what the “cat’s pajamas” means? What’s “O.A.O.” or a “sharpshooter?” What does “sharpening up” signify? What do aged persons of 30 know about “woofy?” You have to be on the inside to get all the new words and their different shades of meaning.
A little of the flapper’s slang is old, but most of it is new. Terms such as “jane,” “horn in” and “egg” are included because there has not been time enough to supply new ones, but on the other hand, we have such classifications as “snugglepupping,” “neckers” and “subchaser,” all invented to fit entirely new situations in sub-deb life.
For the benefit of the ignorant, a 1922 model flapper wrote out a glossary the other day as follows:
Oil-burner—Girl who chews gum.
Princess Mary—Girl about to be married.
Goofy—Attached to, i.e., “I’m goofy about Fred.”
Dud—Flapper who can’t keep in the swim.
Young Otis—Chap from the country.
Slam-book—Diary in which you “knock” your friends.
Egg-harbor—Dance where you pay no admission.
Dumb Dora—Same as dud.
Bun-duster—A cake eater.
Something-to-your-eye—Expression of high approval.
Woofy—In place of nothing else to say; generally meaningless.
Snake—“Cakie” who drags a girl every evening.
Cat’s pajamas—Anything very good.
Ankling along—Taking a walk.
Sinker—Girl who is a wall flower.
Red Mike—Boy who never goes out with a girl.
Darb—Can be relied on to pay the checks.
Monog—One who is “goofy” about one person at a time.
Rug-shaking—Shimmying.
Blouse—Let’s go.
Flat-wheeler—Chap whose idea of entertainment is a walk.
Tomato—Pretty girl who can dance but has no brains.
Washout—Maiden somewhat the worse for years.
Snugglepupping—Spooning, “petting.”
Mad money—Street car money in case of a row with your fellow.
Strike-breaker—Substitute girl when your steady is sore on you.
Lollygagger—Young man addicted to hallway speeding.
Bell-polisher—Same variety, lingers with hand on knob.
Flat tire—Would-be flapper over thirty.
Smudger—One who does all the new dances.
Wrinkle—A chaperone.
Crasher—Flapper or “cakie” who goes uninvited.
Finale-hopper—Arrives after ticket-taker has gone.
Goof—Sap, guy, fish, but different from “goofy.”
Jammed—Intoxicated.
Destroyer—Dances on your feet.
Squirrel—Hides or banks his or her money.
Loaded—Not drunk, but primed with information.
Sharpshooter—Dances well and spends money freely.
Drag—To escort a flapper somewhere.
4-O—Highest possible rating.
She’s gotten—Knows the ropes.
Blind date—When parties do not know each other.
Buried—Flapper who has become married.
O.A.O.—One and only.
Knee duster—Flapper’s dress.
Nunnally cowboy—Cake eater, lounge lizard.
Wallie—Goof with patent leather hair.
Gadgit—Name of anything you don’t know real name of.

illustration for the Flapper Dictionary - Logansport Pharos-Tribune – April-May 1922

illustration for the Flapper Dictionary in the Logansport Pharos-Tribune (April-May 1922)

During April and May 1922, the Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Logansport, Indiana) published the Flapper Dictionary in instalments:

Tuesday 25th April:
Air Tight—Very attractive.
Ankle Excursion—When a flapper has to walk home.
Apple Knocker—A hay shaker, hick, or gobby from the country.
Apple Sauce—No good, awful.
Barlow—A flapper or spring chicken.
Barney—Scandal-walker.
Barney-Muggin—Business of making love.
Beasel—A flapper slightly more advanced than a Barlow.
Beasel Hound—A girl chaser.
Bees Knees—Peachy, very nice.  Sometimes known as “The Berries.”

Wednesday 26th April:
Bell Polisher—A Beasel Hound who likes to linger in the vestibule at 1 a.m.
Big Hearted—Complimentary adjective describing a young man who supplies the cigarets.
Biscuit—A pettable Barlow or Beasel, a game Flapper.
Blaah—Apple Sauce, anything that is no good.
Blouse—To leave or take the air.
Blow the joint—To Blouse in a hurry.
Boffos—Dollars, berries or jack.
Boiler factory—An undesirable boy or girl.
Book Legger—A man who deals in suppressed novels, sold mostly to Dumb-Bells.
Bozark—A stupid girl.

Thursday 27th April:
Brooksey Boy—A good dresser.
Brush Ape—An Apple Knocker, a country Jake.
Bun Duster—A Piker who frequents teas and other entertainments, without ever trying to repay his social obligations.
Butt Me—Give me a cigaret.
Cake Eater—A habitual Bun Duster.
Cat’s Pajamas—Anything that is very good.
Cellar Smeller—A young man who always happens to be around when liquor is to be had without cost.
Charlie—Any fellow with a mustache.
Cluck—A girl who is a clumsy dancer.
Cow Boy—A young fellow who doesn’t pay much attention to girls.

Friday 28th April:
CRASH IN—To go to a party uninvited.
CRUMB GOBBLER—A Cake-Eater or Bun-Buster [= Bun-Duster] who makes a specialty of crashing in at teas.
DARBS—A person with money who can be relied on to pay the check.
DEW DROPPER—A Beasel Hound who does not work, sleeps all day and gets up at 6 p.m.
DINCHER—A half smoked cigaret.
DUCK’S QUACK—The best thing ever.
DUDD—A boy or girl given to reading or study.
DUMBBELL—Dumb but happy.
DUMBDORA—Stupid girl.
EGG—A hard-boiled Cake-Eater.

Saturday 29th April:
Egg harbor—Dance hall where no admission is charged.
Eight minutes—A very hard boiled egg.
False alarm—A girl who trys to be a scandal walker.
Finagler—A person who stalls until someone else pays the bill.
Finale-hopper—A young person who makes a business of crashing in a dance after the ticket takers have left their posts.
Flat shoe—Fight between a Flapper and her Goof.
Flat Wheeler—A young man whose idea of entertaining a girl is to take her out for an Ankle Excursion.
Flipper—A male flapper.
Frog’s eyebrows—Nice, fine.
Gerryflapper—A Barlow who thinks she looks like Geraldine Farrar.

Monday 1st May:
Given the Air—When A Flapper or a Flipper is thrown down on a date.
Glimmers—Eyes.
Gobby—A Dumbell [= Dumbbell] who has no style, no pep, no nothing.
Goof—A sap, a guy, a fish, a fellow.
Goofy—State of being in love.
Grease-Ball—An ill-mannered, poorly dressed Cake-Eater.
Greens—Buffos, kale, dough, money.
Grubber—One who is always borrowing cigarets.
Grummy—Despondent, blue.
Half-cut—Happily intoxicated, as distinguished from being Jammed or stewed.

Tuesday 2nd May:
HEAVY NECKER—A Biscuit, or Flapper, very fond of petting.
HOLAHOLY—A girl or boy who objects to necking.
HOLY SMOKES—Probation officers who visit dance halls to make sure that there is no improper dancing.
HOOF—To go out for an Ankle Excursion.
HOT DOG—A joyous expression of approval.
HOUDINI—To be on time for a date.
IRONSIDES—Now obsolete—formerly used to denote girls who wore corsets while dancing.
JAMMED—Intoxicated, pickled, shellacked, canned, out like a light, potted, shined, drunk.
JANE—A girl who meets a fellow on the stoop.
JOLAPPY—Synonym for Flapper.

Wednesday 3rd May:
Klippy—Like the Frog’s Eyebrows—nat and nice.
Lalapazaza—A good sport.
Lamp Post—Any noticeable piece of jewelry.
Lens-Louse—A person given to monopolizing the conversation.
Lob—A dumb trick.
Lollygagger—A Bell-Polisher addicted to hallway spooning.
Love Nestler—Flapper with unkempt bobbed hair.
Low Lid—The opposite of a highbrow.
Mad Money—Flapper’s carfare home in case of a Flat Shoe—or fight—with her Goof.
Monog—A young person of either sex who is Goofy about only one person at a time.

Thursday 4th May:
MOOCH—To Blouse or beat it suddenly.
NECKER—A Flapper or Flipper given to cheek-to-cheek dancing.
NICE GIRL—One who takes fellow in and introduces him to the family.
NON-SKID—A girl who can carry liquor.
NOT SO GOOD—A comment of dissatisfaction.
ONE FLIGHT UP—Reference to the practice of a Cake-Eater saving one dollar.
ONE WAY KID—A person who takes everything and gives nothing.
OSTRICH—Anyone who thinks he knows it all.
OTIS—A young man from the country.
OVERDOSE OF OUTSIDE SHELLAC—Description of a Flapper with too much powder on her face.

Friday 5th May:
OVER THERE—A warning that the girl lives too far to take a taxi.
OUT ON PAROLE—A person who has been divorced.
PIPE DOWN—To lay off, to hush up.
PLASTERED—Jammed, intoxicated.
POCKET TWISTER—A gold digger, a flapper of expensive tastes.
PUNK—Any sort of undesirable.
PUT THE GLIMMERS ON—Take notice.
REEL BOY—One who takes his girl to the movies continually.
RITZY—A Flapper who dresses like a vamp—black dress, jet earrings, black socks.
RUG HOPPER—A parlor hound who never takes his girl out.

Saturday 6th May:
Rug Shaker—A gril [= girl] addicted to shimmying.
Sap—A Finale-Hopper.
Scandal Walker—A collegique flapper or flipper so called on account of the collegique form of dancing.
Scoot—A term used by a flapper to denote an elevator boy.
Seventeen Seventy-six—A girl who lives in a house without a vestibule. Little chance for the Bell Polisher.
Shake It—A dancing term to do a “Chicago.”
Sharpy—A young beasel hound who tries to imitate a sharpshooter.
Sharpshooter—A good dancer who spends his money freely.
Slummers—Girls who go to studio parties.
Slunge—The lowest kind of human being.

Monday 8th May:
Smoke Eater—A Flapper with a strong appetite for cigarets.
Smudger—One who does all the close fitting dance steps.
Snake—A wild boy, a regular devil.
Snuggle Puppy—A Flapper or Flipper who is over-sentimental.
Soaked with the Bar Rag—Description of a youngster who has had one drink.
Sponge Cake—A Sharpie who dodges hat check charges by wearing a cap to a dance and stuffing it in his vest.
Squirrel—To hide.
Stepper—One who really can dance.
Storm and Strife—A married Cake-Eater’s way of referring to his wife.
Strife-Breaker—A girl put in to take the place of a young man’s regular when she is away.

Tuesday 9th May:
Streeted—Boy who gets thrown out on the street for taking punch at a rival.
Sub Chaser—A flipper who tries to pick up girls on the street.
Tempo’s Bad—Off color.
They—Used by flappers with tone of disgust to denote the older generation.
Tight—Attractive.
Tomato—A good looking girl who can dance like a blue streak, but is otherwise a perfect dumbbell.
Twist—A girl one takes out to dances to do fancy steps.
Veal—A flapper who sets out to vamp with malice aforethought.

Wednesday 10th May:
Wallie—A Goof with patent leather hair.
Weasel—A scandal walker who breaks the girls’ hearts.
Weeds—Would-be wild ones.
Wind-sucker—A braggart.
Wooden woman—A girl who cannot step along.
Woof! Woof!—An exclamation of ridicule or indignation.
Wrinkle—The mother of a flapper.
Wurp—Anyone who is a wet blanket socially.

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