Those who love history often think of what it would have been like to live in another era, eating its foods, enjoying its entertainments, absorbing its culture, and in general simply being part of another time. One thought that seldom, if ever, occurs is the difficulty that would be experienced communicating. Reading the correspondence of the eighteenth century or perusing one of its newspapers reveals that the people of that era spoke differently, their language was formal and stilted. Over time language became less formal, peppered with phrases which were pertinent to the day.
As youth culture in America exploded, beginning in the 1920s, idioms emerged among the young who began to speak a language of their own. Some of these terms remain in use today, albeit with entirely different meanings from those of their origin, while others are remembered as quaint relics of the days of the speakeasy, the flivver, the flapper, and the bee’s knees. The origins and meanings of many of these terms, as well as their meaning and use in later days, are part of the history of the American language.
Here are the origins and meanings of just a few of the idioms from the 1920s.
The Fire Extinguisher
A time traveler to the 1920s might overhear someone say something along the lines of, “Yes, I’m going out with Susan tonight, but only if I can find a fire extinguisher. Otherwise Pops says no dice”. While modern ears would have no trouble understanding the meaning of no dice, the need to take a fire extinguisher on a date, equipment mandated presumably by the girl’s father, is curious. Unless the date is to attend a bonfire or some similar event, the need for protection against fire seems overly cautious, until one considers that there are different types of fire.
The popularity of the automobile changed the way American youth dated, with the car providing not only transportation, but a secluded setting for a young man to engage in amorous pursuits unobserved, and if the young man was acquainted with a bootlegger, assisted by alcohol. A father may reluctantly grant permission for his daughter to accompany a suitor of an evening, but concern for her virtue may cause him to tell the couple that they must have accompaniment in the form of an approved chaperone. A fire extinguisher in this case is the chaperone, along to ensure things didn’t get too hot. Fire extinguishers were also present at dances and most parties.