Words from the 1930s

Words from the 1930s

The history of cool as a general term of approval is a patchy affair. It emerged in African American English by the early 1930s, perhaps as a development of an earlier US slang sense ‘shrewd or clever’, which itself probably evolved from general English ‘impudent’. Jazz musicians used it to talk about things they approved of, which tended to be laid-back and unforcedly stylish, and the wide popularity of jazz in the 1940s carried the usage into general youth slang in the 1950s. As is usually the case with such items, the next generation found it laughably passé, but it made a storming comeback towards the end of the twentieth century.

Of course, people in the 1930s had far more serious matters to claim their attention. The decade began in the grip of an extended economic slump, and ended with a world war. The terminology of economics (hyperinflation (1930), reflation (1932)) and of destitution (skid row (1931) and Hooverville (a temporary shanty town in America; 1933)) was enlarged, and from Germany came a steady stream of vocabulary that would send a retrospective chill down the spine. The world learned of brownshirts (members of a thuggish Nazi militia; 1932), of the gestapo (1934),the Third Reich (1930), and of the cult of the Führer (1934) and his Hitlerite (1930) followers. And above all it became aware of the word Nazi (1930), which came to stand as the symbol of the evil which overtook Europe and the rest of the globe.

It was becoming clear from the middle of the decade that a conflagration was almost inevitable, and neologisms began to appear that foreshadowed the coming conflict. Soon people knew all about black-outs, this sense particular to Second World War air-raid precautions having appeared by 1935. They were prepared to be chivvied into their Anderson shelters (a prefabricated air-raid shelter named after the home secretary, Sir John Anderson; 1939) by air-raid wardens (1936) if the threat of German dive-bombing (1935) became reality. They might well be wearing their siren suits (a one-piece garment for use in shelters, later a favourite of Winston Churchill; 1939). They realized they might be evacuated (removed from an area liable to aerial bombings to safer surroundings; 1938), or have evacuees (1934) billeted on them. Perhaps they had heard the new term Blitzkrieg (1939) too, although they could scarcely have realized what significance it would hold for many of them by the end of 1940.

In the face of such unrelieved gloom, some light relief was sorely needed. The 1930s were a golden age for film-going, and Britons were visiting Odeons, the new chain of cinemas named for the concert halls of Ancient Greece and Rome (1930), in their millions to see (and hear) all the Oscar (1934)-winners from Hollywood. They also had the chance to drop in casually to a news theatre (1933) to catch the latest newsreel or cartoon, or even a documentary (as a noun appeared by 1935). There was mass attendance in the dance halls, too, with lots of new dances to participate in, from the jitterbug (documented by 1939), the Lindy hop (probably named after the US pilot and folk-hero Charles Lindbergh; 1931), and the Susie Q (named after an unknown Susie; 1936) to the more homely conga (1935), palais glide (1936), Lambeth walk (1937), and Knees up, Mother Brown (1939).

Mass catering was also cranking up. Lounge bars (1937) and snack bars (1930) provided for every taste. For the more sophisticated there were scampi, usually breadcrumbed and fried served with a garlic sauce (1930), and courgettes (1931); for the kiddies, fruit gums (1938) and Mars bars (1932). The hamburger (or in full hamburger steak), which had been around since the 1880s, took on a new lease of life with the combined names of additional or alternative ingredients forming the cheeseburger (1930), the chickenburger (1936), and the porkburger (1939). But no doubt the most iconic addition to the English-speakers’ menu was Spam (1937), apparently a blend of spiced and ham. Originating in the USA, this tinned luncheon meat (an exquisitely pompous euphemism dating from the mid-1940s) reached Britain in ample time to become an all-too-familiar mainstay of the nation’s dull and meagre wartime diet, and in due course something of a laughing-stock.

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.

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