I am working on a (awesome, life-altering, poignant, I hope) novel that takes place in the fifties, and the language is a bit tricky because I have to be constantly vigilant about the slang I use. I want the terminology to be time specific, or at the very least, I want to make sure any slang I incorporate came into use by the 50's. To make matters worse, the novel is set in 1953, and most of the lists I find online for slang used in the fifties covers the entire decade. So I can't be sure if each particular term was used by 1953 or not.
I've been cruising the internet to ensure I am using the appropriate slang, and I've purchased Dictionary of American Slang from Amazon. And to make myself feel even more secure, I've been watching films circa 1950-1953 and checking out the vocabulary used in them. What I've found out is that a lot of the slang and idiomatic expressions we take for granted have been around for a very long time and were widely used in the 1950's.
Here are some expressions I've heard on films from the early fifties along with the titles of the films.
Monkey Business, 1952
This ridiculous film stars Cary Grant (whom I adore), Ginger Rogers (behaving especially hokey), and Marilyn Monroe (in the dumb blonde role). Looking back on it, I'm mildly amused by the shenanigans that passed for comedy those days (not that we don't have our own dumb comedies today).
"That's queer."--"That's strange." Yes, this was before "queer" came to refer to a homosexual person and before the gay community commandeered it as a term of pride.
"Whatchamacallitt"--Do I have to define this one? We still use it today. I'm not sure about the spelling.
"A real knee slapper"--"A funny joke" Do people actually slap their knees when something is funny? Do you have to be a hillbilly to engage in this activity?
"To knock somebody's block off"--"To punch someone" Apparently a person's head is like a block in spite of the fact that most heads are more round that square.
"Trousers"--"Pants" I think they still call pants "trousers" in England.
"Fly into a rage"--"To become angry" You don't need wings to do this, and other than clubs, I don't think there's an actual place called "rage."
"It's not all it's cracked up to be"--"It's not as great as everyone thinks." We still use this expression today.
"Thingamabob"--See "Whatchamacallitt" above.
"Scaredy cat"--"A frightened person" Apparently a cat's most expressed emotion is fear.
"Talking rubbish"--"Speaking lies or silly things" Now, I know they still refer to trash as "rubbish" in England. In the U.S., the term strikes us as a bit archaic, however.
"Old boy"--"Pal" or "Friend" This term also seems pretty archaic today.
How to Marry a Millionaire, 1953
This fairly sexist film stars Lauren McCall (with her mouth constantly occupied by a cigarette), Marilyn Monroe (blind without her glasses), and Betty Grable (not as much of a knockout as I was expecting). The three rent a ritzy apartment with the hopes of landing well-moneyed spouses.
"To blow money"--"To spend money" We still use this expression today.
"To blow your top"--"To get angry and lash out" I suppose this is like a volcano because, as you know, volcanoes are prone to fits of rage.
"Shack up with"--"Live with" Now, this one surprised me. I thought it came about later, like in the everything-goes 60's.
"Throw in the towel"--"To give up" I already knew this one was a reference to boxing. I believe that if you throw in the towel in a boxing match, it means you concede the fight.
"Gas pump jockey"--"A person who pumps gas at a gas station" Now, this one is really archaic. I haven't seen a full service gas station in years.
"To be loaded"--"To have money" We still use this expression today.
"A joint"--"A place" I've always thought of this as either a beatnik or gangster term.
"Put money in the kitty"--"To save up money" I actually don't think a cat would appreciate being force fed cash.
"Creamy"--"Good" Betty Grable's character says this several times. I've never heard it before and don't know if it's unique to the fifties or to Grable's character in the movie.
"Cheaters"--"Glasses" This term obviously has not stood the test of time. I saw it in lists of slang from the fifties but didn't realize it came about so early in the decade.
"He really sends me."--"I'm really interested in him." This is a really fun expression. It sounds a bit poetic.
"A square"--"A dull person" Whenever I hear this term, I can't help but think of Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction making the square with her fingers.
"Chowderhead"--"Idiot" or "Loser" This term sounds pretty mild today.
"A chump"--"Idiot" or "Loser" I think this one is used pretty much the same way today.
"A screwball"--"A crazy person" We use this more as an adjective than a noun today.
"To jaw"--"To talk" I like the way this one refers to the body part that creates the action described. There's a literary term for that, I think, but I can't remember what it is.
"To be in a jam"--"To be in trouble" We use this expression the same way today.
"To hock something"--"To pawn something" We still do this and use the same term today.
"To be crazy about someone"--"To really like someone" I wonder just how old this expression is and why we think of love as a psychiatric problem.
"To flip"--"To become enamored of" or "To lose control over" Today, we "flip out" over things, but I'm not sure we "flip" for people. Or at the very least, I don't hear the expression used that way.
"To dig someone"--"To understand someone" I always think of "dig" used this way as a product of beatnik and hippie culture. It seems strange to hear "straights" using it.
"For crying out loud"--"For goodness sake" This is just an interjection, used to express disbelief, surprise, or irritation.
"To nip down to"--"To go to" I like the poetry of this expression.
"To get tied up"--"To get busy with something" We still get tied up today, sans rope.
"To be blind as a bat"--"To have really bad eyesight" Funny how we assign blindness to bats when they actually see quite well using echolocation.
"Four eyes"--"A person with glasses" This is still a rude way to refer to someone who wears glasses although I think the sting is not as bad as it once was.
"A strudel"--"An attractive woman" This one makes me laugh. It's very sexist and amusing (to me, anyway).
"On the level"--"Honest" I like the imagery used in this expression.
"To work like a charm"--"To work very well" If you are to follow this expression to its logical conclusion, then apparently witchcraft is very effective.
"When the chips are down"--"When things are not going your way" This undoubtedly refers to gambling. Poker, I guess.
"A grease monkey"--"A mechanic" Mechanics tend to get greasy, but I'm not sure there's anything particularly simian about them. Maybe this expression demeans their intellect, or maybe it's a pushback against creationism (and then again, probably not).
"Dingbag"--"A stupid person" My dad uses this expression a lot. I'm not sure what a "dingbat" actually is, but it's a funny term.
"Dough"--"Money" Does this insinuate that bakers are very wealthy?
"A monkey's uncle"--"?" I'm not quite sure what this expression means, but it seems like it was pretty common mid-twentieth century.
"To be on the lam"--"To be running from something" We still use this expression today.
"To blow your stack"--"To get really angry" Apparently this refers to people who carry things on their head, which tend to erupt, I guess, when they become angry.
"To lay low"--"To be discreet and out of sight" I like this expression, too, and it's still used today.
"Goofball"--"A silly person" This is a mild insult, still used today.
"Bubblehead"--"A dumb person" I guess the bubble is a metaphor for the human head, and the implication is that instead of a brain, the person's head is occupied with air.
"A greasy spoon"--"A less than sophisticated restaurant" We still use this term today.
~Peyton Place by Grace Metalious~
Meh-tuh-lee-us? Muh-towel-yus? How exactly do you say this chick's name anyway?
First some background (if you want to get straight to the review, skip this paragraph and the next one): I didn't want to read this book. I was actually looking for books set in the 50's and kept coming across this title. I'd heard of it, of course. It's one of those things that's kind of written onto the cultural wallpaper. But I also knew this book had a reputation. You know, the kind that a girl from the wrong side of the tracks with self-esteem issues who wears revealing clothing and too much make-up has. Yeah, that's right. It's known as a DIRTY book. And I don't especially care for DIRTY books. I don't go for Harlequin romances and have zero interest in getting into the whole Thirty Shades of Grey fracas (Or are there fifty? Eh. Don't care.). Anyway, I've been doing research on the fifties since my illustrious new novel takes place during that time period, and I wasn't having any luck finding any good reads that hover around that decade, so when the librarian recommended this one after an otherwise fruitless web search, I rolled my eyes, sighed, and asked if she couldn't find anything better. Then, I gave in and checked out the darn thing.
It was only after I had read through several chapters and gotten hooked that I figured out that the book is actually set in the late 1930's. Roar! Growl! Grrr! I send a bloodthirsty dinosaur to rend your dirty book to shreds, Meta-lee-us! But anyways. Like I said, ole G.M. had ensnared me by this point, so I couldn't very well put it down, now could I?
Here's what Metalious does really well: CHARACTERS! Oh Lordy Be, she is a master at creating realistic, compelling, authentic, and did I say realistic (?) characters. So that's the part that sucks you in. There's old Doc Swain, complete with white hair, white suits like KFC's colonel, and bright blue eyes. His language is unadorned, vulgar, in fact, and he is the most honest, caring fellow in the whole town. Then, there's Selena Cross, darkly gorgeous and exotic as a gypsie, she is smart and sees the the world with all its grit and grime, sans any kind of romantic blinders. She's also a shack kid whose family lives in squalor and whose stepdad is an abusive alcoholic. There's Rodney Harrington, the epitome of the spoiled, rich kid, whose demeanor is marked by laziness and apathy and whose behavior (as he grows older) is replete with horndoggery. And there's the ostensible main character of the novel, Allison MacKenzie, a restless, unsatisfied, romantic girl, who puts her absent father on a pedestal, little knowing that he had another wife and family and never actually married her mother. Of course, there are about a gazillion other characters who are equally well-developed, and together, they make up the fabric of the small town.
It seems the characters are both the highlight and downfall of the novel, at least in my (not so humble) opinion. Yes, there is a plot (several, in fact--okay, TOO MANY, in fact), but the novel focuses overly much on the lives and individual prejudices of its characters and not enough on a single, unifying plot. Maybe as a reader of contemporary fiction, I am spoiled by an industry-standard plot format--conflict, rising action, climax, denouement--you know, all that rigamarole you forgot from your high school English classes. But, heck! Even Jane Austen has a central plot in her novels, and she was writing way back in the early 19th century. So, no excuses, Muh-tuh-LEE-us! Peyton Place is so focused on the people who make up Peyton Place that it begins to drag about halfway through when the reader (i.e. me!) begins to get bored with the litany of character sketches.
So why is this a dirty book? Well, based on today's standards, it's really not doing much to push the envelope off the table. Stephen King's books can be raunchier than this. However, I can definitely see how this book was considered risque in a milieu as conservative as 1950's America. Okay, I'll just say it--it has sex scenes. Yes, it does. (I skimmed over them to keep from having to roll my eyes off the page, but hey, they're there, all right.) More than that, the book is rife with controversial subjects like teen sex, a mother-son relationship that has a whiff of incest about it, rape, and abortion. Oh, and there's some uncomfortable talk about hypocrisy in religion and class bigotry as well. So yeah, I can see how that would get the old mid-20th century birds riled up. Yes, indeed.
Slightly on a side note, I can't end this review without talking about some of the hysterical (as in humorous, not insane) language used in the novel. Especially the "sexy" parts. Here's the first line: "Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle . . . " I'm a woman, and I wouldn't describe myself as "ripe" and "hotly passionate." I can be fickle at time, but who isn't? First, the description is sexist. Second, it's hilariously cheesy. And believe me, Miz Meaty-licious ADORES the cheese aisle. During one of the love scenes between the beautiful yet prudish Constance (Allison's mom) and the swarthy, plain-talking Tom Makris (Constance's eventual husband), he says to her, "Your nipples are as hard as diamonds." (I interrupt with a burst of laughter.) Is that supposed to be romantic? Racy? Sexy? Cause to me, it just stinks of overripe cheese.
Final word--This book is more important for how it is seen in society and how it was received when it was written (The blurb on the cover pitches it as "the blockbuster novel that shocked the nation.") than for any sort of literary content. Don't get me wrong; it is a great example of characterization. Plot development? Not so much. But, yeah, it's worth the read...just not necessarily if you're looking for information about life in the early 50's.
Word and Book Lover.