Popular slang words by year
For the past few years, newspapers have been warning that the death of the English language is lurking around the corner. In the early 2000s, parents and educators worried that abbreviations like “brb,” “lol,” and spelling “you” as “u” would harm youth spelling and writing abilities in the future. Others have bemoaned dictionaries’ additions of colloquial definitions to their pages, illustrated in the backlash to the Oxford English Dictionary’s expansion of the definition of “literally” to include “a term of emphasis to something that isn’t true.”
Though it might seem like English is slipping out of our control, it’s actually completely natural. Language shifts over the centuries; after all, we speak the same kind of English Shakespeare did, but reading his works can make some students feel like they’re trying to comprehend a foreign language. The development of slang is a key factor that took us from the Bard’s English to today's. This informal vocabulary recycles words or creates new ones from existing parts and gives them new meanings, revealing something about the culture or group that uses them (usually young people). It can prove someone belongs to a group, enable conversations about taboo subjects, or make talking to friends quicker and easier.
Using Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler, which records when certain words were first used in print, and corroboration with outside sources, Stacker compiled a list of slang words and definitions coined or popularized every year from 1920 to 2019. The result is a powerful picture of American history in the last century, and how English has changed with it.
Click through to find out what slang was popular the year you were born and see if you recognize any of these words from your high school days.
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Meaning: mildly to incredibly satisfactory
“Copacetic” is often considered to originate from the African American community in the U.S., popularized by famous tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Others claim it instead has roots in Yiddish, French, Latin, and Italian phrases. Its origin is ultimately unknown, having been traced back only as far as a 1919 biography of Abraham Lincoln, but it has managed to endure to the modern day.
1921: Bee’s knees
Meaning: a highly admired, excellent person or thing
Calling someone “the bee’s knees” might seem like nonsense, but that’s the point. “Bee’s knees” is just one of many 1920s nonsense catchphrases. Others included “elephant’s adenoids,” “caterpillar's kimono,” “tiger’s spots,” and “the cat’s pajamas.” The only thing these strange sayings had in common was the comparison between a good thing and a part of an animal that didn’t exist.
[Pictured: Babe Ruth]
1922: Know your onions
Meaning: to have experience or be knowledgeable about something
Many believe that this phrase is meant to refer to English lexicographer C.T. Onions, who worked on the Oxford English Dictionary. However, it is uniquely American, first appearing in Harper’s Bazaar in 1922, and likely has nothing to do with Onions at all. Instead, it falls in a similar category as “bee’s knees:” one of a number of popular nonsense phrases that all involved food and having knowledge about a subject.
[Pictured: Suzanne Lenglen of France (right) and Molla Mallory of the USA standing on the court before their women's singles final match at the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships, 1922]
Meaning: a young woman in the 1920s who showed freedom from conventions and societal norms
The iconic image from 1920s America, “flappers” conjure an image of women in makeup and bobbed hair driving automobiles or dancing in a speakeasy. While this might be the most striking image of the American "Roaring ‘20s," the slang is actually imported from the British. There, young women briefly wore rubber galoshes left open to flap around, which let to the coinage of the term.
1924: Joe Blow
1925: Concrete jungle
Meaning: an urban area with many large buildings and often considered wild, competitive, or dangerous
The rapid industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th century fueled the move of Americans from rural towns to cities, searching for work in new and growing industries. As the new urbanites acclimated to life in the city and an often dangerous work environment, the cities may very well have seemed like a dangerous wilderness to be navigated.
1926: Giggle water
Meaning: an alcoholic beverage
The Prohibition era brought America some of the most clever ways to make, sell, and obtain alcohol, including marketing it as medicine or pretending to be a religious leader to take advantage of loopholes. It also marked the invention of some of the most fun slang for alcohol, including “giggle water,” which likely got its name from the laughter that occurs when some people drink.
First recorded in Edmund Wilson’s "Lexicon of Prohibition," “zozzled” was one of many words used during Prohibition to describe the effect of now-illegal drinking. “Zozzle” most likely comes from the word the word “sozzle,” another word for drunk that also means to splash something on someone, something a drunk person may be more likely to do.
Meaning: nonsense, balderdash
“Horsefeathers” is an exclamation perfect for interrupting someone you disagree with. “Applesauce,” another word from the same time, could serve a similar purpose. Rumored to be having been coined by cartoonist Billy De Beck, some think it’s meant to serve as a replacement for a more vulgar term, but that definition only goes back to the 1940s.
Much like “horsefeathers” before it, “nerts” was something you shouted when something just wasn’t going right. It was used in place of “nuts,” presumably to avoid shocking or offending anyone nearby.2018 All rights reserved.