Slang and the Great Depression

The early 1930s were chaotic years in the United States. The Wall Street stock-market crash of 1929 precipitated the Great Depression, the worst economic downturn in the history of the United States. The depression had devastating effects on the country. The stock market was in shambles. Many banks couldn't continue to operate. Farmers fell into bankruptcy. A quarter of the working force, or 13 million people, were unemployed in 1932, and this was only the beginning. The depression lasted over a decade, with hundreds of thousands of Americans losing their jobs, businesses failing, and financial institutions collapsing.

Much slang from the era comes out as a response to the Great Depression: from words referring to President Herbert Hoover, to Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl, to Apple Annies trying to make ends meet. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1932, Americans talked of a New Deal and its slew of programs, known by their initials.

Those who wanted to get away from it all could hit the road... or the tracks. Auto Touring was the new way to vacation, but hoboes who couldn't travel by car jumped the blinds or went on thumb.

Americans kept up to date by listening in to the radio. The ether provided hours of news, music, and serials, not to mention Roosevelt's Fireside Chats.

And not everyone was unemployed during the Depression, of course. Glamor Girls and members of Cafe Society spent their evenings in speakos, or after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, in restaurants.

Popular youth culture was in many ways undaunted by the nation's troubles. Joe College (typical college boy) and the Soda Jerk epitomized America's wise-cracking, optimistic young.

African-American vernacular had an immense impact on the slang of the 1930s. Jazz musicians especially defined the popular youth slang of the Depression, including their references to drugs and marijuana.

One More Thing...

As you check out the slang from the Great Depression, you will probably recognize many of the words as ones we use today. It seems that, when looking at American slang from the 20th century, there is very little that is new. Many words in our American Slanguage are cyclical: popular words fall out of favor and then reemerge in a new generation.

Many of our slang words today are just not as new as they seem...