Love, romance, and "wild women" in the 1920s


The 1920s brought many changes for young women in the United States. As in the play "Thoroughly Modern Millie", millions of young women left the safety and security of rural, small-town life and went to live an independent life in the big city. The flapper culture is perhaps the best example of the type of life that many of them aspired to. Flappers (flapper, [flapper]) were young, independent, brash, and sometimes more than a little bit "naughty", at least compared to what their family back on the farm expected. Some of the most frequent collocates for flappers in COHA are dress, hair, blond, smoking, flat-chested, and chic, all of which make sense. In the sections that follow, I first look at some of the (slang) terms that were new in the 1920s, which were used to describe these new women. And then I turn to new words that refer to the changing relationship between men and women at this time.

As discussed in the book Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers: A decade-by-decade guide to the vanishing vocabulary of the twentieth century (Ostler) there were a number of new terms for women in the 1920s, which reflected the news ways in which they were being viewed by others in society. There are a number of these terms that must have been really colloquial and maybe even localized, because they aren't found at all in the 400 million word COHA corpus, and are quite rare in even the 155 billion word Google Books corpus.

These include terms like chunk of lead (unpopular young woman; in Google Books, but usually referring to the metal), sheba (the female equivalent to the male sheik, as with Rudolph Valentino; hard to disambiguate in Google Books), strike breaker (a woman who was ready to date her boyfriend's best friend as soon as the relationship was over; nearly always referring to work stoppage in Google Books), and a woman who knows her oil (i.e. who knows how to be "entertaining" on a date; no tokens at all in Google Books).

On the other hand, there are some interesting terms that do show up in the corpora. Flappers, of course, is very common, as mentioned above. But men must have felt a bit threatened by women, because there are derogatory terms that appear for the first time in the 1920s:

  • Dumb Dora (COHA, GB) did occur for the first time in the 1920s, but is quite old-fashioned now.

  • Gold digger (gold-digger, golddigger) [all COHA] probably describes well the small-town women who came to the big city in search of a rich husband.

  • Divorce was more common in the 1920s, as women moved away from the stable social structures of small-town life, and so there are terms like fire alarm [COHA], which refer to a divorced woman. This is never really common in COHA with that meaning, however, even though there is a reference to moral fire alarm in the late 1930s.

At least some men enjoyed the freer, more liberated women, though, as evidenced by new terms like heavy date, non-skid, and red-hot mamas.

  • Heavy date (COHA, GB) is first found in the mid-1920s and it is still being used into the 2000s.

  • Non-skid (non*skid) refers to a woman who knows how to "hold her liquor", and makes sense in terms of Prohibition in the 1920s. There's only one possible example in COHA though: 1920 wriggle around like he'd been asked to swallow a non-skid headache tablet.

  • Even though the term red hot mama supposedly came into the language in the 1920s, in COHA there are only two examples before the 1990s (the first in the 1940s) and three since then. Google Books has a handful of examples from the 1920s.

The book English through the Ages (Brohaugh) lists a number of words and phrases referring to romance and sex that appear for the first time in the 1920s:

  • Sexy (COHA, GB) shows one of the clearest trends in COHA. In appears first in 1925 (maybe due to the starlets in movies, or the flappers?), and then has increased steadily since then. In Google Books there are tokens before the 1920s, and there is a continual increase to the present time.

  • Related to this is sex appeal (COHA, GB), which appears in COHA for the first time 1915 and has been fairly stable since the 1930s (though maybe an increase in 1950s, maybe due to actresses like Marilyn Monroe?). In Google Books, it does increase a lot from the 1910s to 1930s.

  • Since women were alone in the big city for the first time, it would be more common to go on a blind date* (COHA, GB) which occurs in Google Books for the first time in 1926 and COHA in 1932, and increases steadily since then.

  • Unlike small-town life (where everyone knew everyone), going out alone with a man that you hardly knew in the big city might be a bit scary. So women started to double date (double dat*), which occurs for the first time in COHA in 1941 and increases steadily since then. (Hard to find in GB, since it often refers to calendars.)

  • And what did people do on dates? One new term was nooky, which occurs for the first time in COHA in 1932 and appears to still be used (although it sounds pretty old-fashioned to me).

  • As far as specific date "activities", I'll just mention the phrase French kiss (COHA: French kiss*, GB: French kissing), which appears first in COHA 1937 (first in GB in 1932) and which has possibly increased since the 1970s.

  • Once you'd found your girlfriend, she was then your sweetie pie (COHA, GB) which occurs for the first time in COHA in 1934 (and GB in 1937).

There are two last phrases that appear for the first time in the 1920s (according to English through the Ages), but I'm kind of at a loss to explain why they would appear at that time:

  • Cradle-snatcher (COHA: cradle-snatch*, cradle snatch*; GB; cradle snatch*) refers to a man that marries a very young woman. It appears for the first time in Google Books in 1908 and in COHA in 1914 and does increase in the 1920s. In COHA, however, there aren't any examples since the 1970s, and it sounds pretty old-fashioned now.

  • Shotgun wedding appears for the first time in Google Books in 1921 and COHA in the 1930s. Maybe this refers to sudden, "unplanned" weddings of these flapper girls who'd left the safety of small-town life and ran into "problems" in the big city?