When we think to the Twenties, we’ll most likely think parties, bootleg booze, young people having fun, and the flappers. When we think of the sound of the Twenties, we’ll think jazz and the funny flappers’ slang.
Slang can be described as an informal and non-standard language used by a subculture in a particular society. It is strongly characteristic of that subculture, it allows the members of that group to recognise one another, very often it embodies attitudes and values of the group. Although it has to be widely accepted and adopted inside the group to have any chances to survive, slang has a tendency to be auto-referential.
Why is it used, then?
In his book, Flappers 2 Rappers, Tom Dalzell suggests there are three main reasons why – from the Twenties onward – young people used their own slang.
- Slang moves the level of the conversation toward the informal, so toward a freer, commune way of expression. It signals that people using the same slag belongs to the same group.
- Slang establishes status because it identifies people who belong and people who are outcasts.
- Very often, slang defies authority, and it’s oppositional, marking a resistance to the established authority.
The youth of the Twenties were the first to be considered a separate age entity and the first to have their own lingo, precisely for the reasons listed above.
Having their own way of expression and using words and phrases that were basically unintelligible to people of different ages was a way to strengthen the idea that they were different and powerful because they defined themselves.
This was a new social experience that attracted a lot of attention from the larger society to the point that some of that slang was appropriated by everyone trying to connect with young people: films, magazines, songs. Although nobody but flappers and their culture actually used that slang, some of its expression and its sounds became widely popular.
Why then, so little of that language survived the flapper culture, either as slang or standard colloquial English? The reason may rest in the flapper culture itself. Flappers tried too hard to be and sound different. Their forms of expression were extreme, like their behaviour, the language they used tried to break with the past so hard that it became artificial. When the flapper culture died out in the ashes of the Great Depression, a very different time began for everyone, included young people. The flapper slang faded with them.
You can find many different lists of the Twenties slang on the Internet, but this is my favourite one
Tom Dalzell, Flappers 2 Rappers: American Youth Slang. Merriam-Webster, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1996