Words from the 1920s

Words from the 1920s

In the decade following the war to end war (a coinage first recorded in 1914) there was frivolity in the air, but also a residue of tension, of anxiety, that refused to go away. They called it the Jazz Age (1920) and the Roaring Twenties (1923), but the 1920s was also the decade that saw the first appearance in English of bacteriological warfare (1924), of Fascism (1921) and National Socialist (1923) (and some of its squalid appurtenances, such as blackshirts (members of Italy’s National Fascist Party or of the British Union of Fascists; 1922) and goose-steppers (1923)).

It would be surprising if people hadn’t wished to banish all that from their thoughts and party till they dropped, and the vocabulary of post-war hedonism bears multiple traces of that state of mind: there were new dances to dance (the black bottom (1925), the Charleston (1923), the camel walk (1921), the heebie-jeebies (1926)), new drinks to drink (gimlets (1928) and sidecars (1922)) in those sophisticated cocktail bars (1929), and by the end of the decade talking pictures to be seen at the flicks (1926) (as so often, the invention of the term, talkie (1913), anticipated the actuality). People felt they had permission once again to pay attention to their personal appearance: beauticians (1924) came on the scene, new hairstyles were introduced (the shingle (1924), for example, and the Eton crop (1925)), and fashions in clothing were liberated kaleidoscopically. Some of the names have now fossilized into icons of their time (Oxford bags (wide trousers; 1925) and plus-fours (1920)), but we’re still wearing sweatshirts (1929) and T-shirts (1920).

One could make out a case for identifying the 1920s as the decade when our current idea of modernity – as opposed to pre-modern Victorian ways – began to take shape (the term modernism, in its application to the visual arts, music, literature, etc., as is especially associated with this early 20th-century creative period, was in fact first recorded in 1879, with early use usually contemptuous). And indeed many things and ideas that are part of the furniture of everyday 21st-century life first received their names during this period: car-parks (1926), for instance, fridges (1926; originally spelled frig), the media (1923; originally as a term in the advertising industry), and robots (1922) . But perhaps nothing encapsulates 20th-century modernity as neatly as the zip (1925; originally, in US English, the zipper): instead of wasting five or six precious seconds of your life fogeyishly buttoning or unbuttoning, you can do it in one with the zip (whose very name promises efficient speed).

As ever, newly broken ground made fertile soil for neologisms. On the roads, for example, cheaper mass-produced cars began to make motoring something for the many, not the few, and a whole new vocabulary was called into being to talk about it: A road (1921) and by-pass (1922), hit-and-run (1924) and hitch-hike (1923), and roundabout (1926), speed cop (1924) and traffic lights (1929), , and in the US, filling stations (1921). If you could not afford a car of your own, you could take a trolleybus (a bus that got its power from an overhead cable; 1921) or a chara (a motor coach, short for char-à-banc; 1928).

This was also the decade when wireless telegraphy morphed into public radio broadcasting. A completely new lexicon had to evolve in a very short time to accommodate it, and listeners-in (1922) soon came to be familiar with terms like crystal set (a radio tuned by means of a semiconducting crystal; 1921) and valve set (one in which the signal is amplified by thermionic valves; 1929), news reader (1925), outside broadcast (1924) and on the air (1927), commentary (1927) and commentator (1928), and even such basic items as broadcast (1922) and programme (1922). Although the word television dates back to the first decade of the century, the 1920s saw the first practical demonstration of television (by John Logie Baird), and the words televise (1926) and look in (to watch television; 1922) were born (as also, less successfully, were televisor (applied to Baird’s pioneering apparatus; 1926) and watch in (1928)).

As we’ve seen in the cases of talkie and television, the idea often gives rise to the term before it can be translated into practical reality (as indeed was also so with colour television (1927)). Nowhere was this more powerfully demonstrated in the 1920s than in the hypothetical field of space travel, where science fiction (1927) at least as much as theoretical speculation was responsible for such coinages as astronaut (1928), rocket-ship (1925) and spacesuit (1929). Time shifts uneasily beneath our feet as we come across these apparent asynchronies. Was the iron curtain (1920) really a thing a quarter of a century before the end of World War II? Well, yes it was, albeit not such a specific thing as it later became. Scientists were talking about microclimates (1925) and recycling (1926) long before they impinged on the public consciousness. Be prepared for more such surprises as English ticks over into the 1930s.

Editor’s note: the first citation represents only the earliest documented use yet found by OED researchers; a word may have been in circulation somewhat earlier.

The opinions and other information contained in the OED blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.