It’s the Cat’s Meow!

Nothing dates the period of a conversation like slang. ‘Feeling groovy’ in 2015 is a challenge. Although a few notes of the classic Simon & Garfunkel recording (The 59th Street Bridge Song) and I have to sing along and, well, feel groovy, if a bit goofy, too. There’s a funny discordance between a dated slang expression and current sensibilities.

This creates an opportunity for writers interested in playing with dialog. A character can be “stuck” in the time of his youth —or be an actual time traveler— and reveal this in the expressions that pepper his conversational style.

I have a peculiar affinity for 1920s slang expressions. The Cat’s Meow and the Cat’s Pajamas are particular favorites. Neither belongs in contemporary dialog, but there’s no law against me writing something set in the 1920s —or creating a character with a loopy sense of humor or a verbal inclination toward dated expressions.

There are all sorts of wonderful slang phrases from the past. I found a few that I like in a list of Victorian expressions — “got the morbs” (meaning a temporary feeling of melancholy) sounds very contemporary. It might even fit into a futuristic story with a dystopian bent. While “mutton shunter” (police) feels strictly Victorian.

“Gnarly” and “rad” are both stuck in the 1980s —where they belong. “Golddigger” was originally 1930s slang, as was “kibosh” and “patsy.” All three have stuck around, even if the aren’t used every day, we still understand them and don’t associate them solely with gangster films from the 30s. It’s interesting to see which slang ages well and which words are just too groovy to fit anywhere after 1972.


  1. Sometimes hearing slang helps you date when a person is from ( except maybe a time traveller with no sense of direction) but I’m not conscious of remembering any from my youth except Groovy and I’ve no idea even now if that came from the groove in a record. I’m sur I must use some though without knowing it.
    When I talk about something being ‘hip’ these days it’s more likely I’m talking arthritis than how up to date it is.
    xxx Huge Hugs Candy xxx

    • Candy Korman

      You are just too funny!!!
      Hip and Hip!

      Slang also has its own subgroups and fads. So BAD can mean good. Hot can mean really cool and really cool can mean — really cool, too. But cold can mean bad or boring.

      Maybe that’s why I like vintage slang. The Cat’s Pajamas always sound funny and fun.

  2. lol – This is one reason I find dialogue so tricky – how do you come up with slang that hasn’t been created yet? And still make it sound reasonable?

    My favourite from more or less current slang is ‘my bad’. First time I heard it I remember thinking ‘my bad what?’ Now I think of it as verbal shorthand, or maybe haiku… 🙂

    • Candy Korman

      Some science fiction, alternative history and futuristic dystopian novels have managed to create original slang for the characters. This is a little like writing in Klingon, but when it’s done right it works.

      LOL “My bad” is a good one… its a shortcut that you can learn from the context without being cognizant of the COOL lingo of the time/place.

      Perhaps one of use should write a story where all the dialog is written in haikus?

  3. I think two of my favorite movies for 80’s slang must be Valley Girl and Fastimes at Ridgemont High. For me, slang can be easier to tolerate on the moving screen as opposed to the written page since it can seem like overkill in writing.

    • Candy Korman

      Those were classics of 80s slang!
      Film —because we half expect it to be date six months after the original release— does get forgiven more for “vintage” language. But I still think that a judicious use of period slang can be useful in communicating a character’s place in time. The operative word is JUDICIOUS as a heavy sprinkling of gnarly and rad makes for boring dialog.