It seems to me that our American version of the English language is rather volatile, that is, it’s constantly changing with new words and expressions showing up and old ones fading into obscurity. This phenomenon is partly attributable to the ever-changing world with its new technologies although some really old words still hang around – ships still “sail” using other, newer power sources.
Anyway, this piece of Americana was recently the topic of conversation among several of us “seasoned citizens” as we indulged in a bit of nostalgia about words and expressions that were commonplace when we were young but no longer have a place in today’s vocabulary. We had lotsa fun recalling this stuff so I thought I might share some of it hoping readers might enjoy it as well.
One of the first expressions that somehow popped up was “Zoot Suit” – which was not an early form of a hazardous material protective garment. Nope, a Zoot Suit was an outfit worn by young males. It consisted of: a pair of trousers tightly fitted at the ankles and the waist, but very loosely fitted on the legs: a jacket with highly padded shoulders and of a length that reached almost to the knees; and, frequently, a highly colored shirt and tie. This ensemble was often topped with a wide-brimmed hat. In addition, the wearer sported a long gold or silver plated “watch chain” looped across the front of the trousers. Yep, this was actually the type of costume worn by a true “hep cat” – yesterday’s “cool dude.”
By the way, the well-dressed adult man back then usually displayed a real silver or gold “watch chain” that was connected to a gold or silver “pocket watch” on one end and frequently a small silver or gold knife on the other. The ends of the watch chain fit into “watch pockets” located either on a vest or the trousers so the zoot suit’s version was a gross exaggeration of good fashion – but I digress.
Our hep cat would go out on the town to “cut a rug” (dance) often doing the “jitterbug” – a very fast-paced and athletic type of dance involving the male flinging his female partner about with what appeared to be wild abandon, but was actually a series of well-executed and intricate steps. His partner might be wearing a “poodle skirt” – a rather voluminous garment often reaching well below the knee and featuring an applique figure of a poodle dog. She also would likely be wearing anklets (short cotton socks) and low-heeled “saddle shoes” – characterized by white toe and heel areas and a black or brown saddle-shaped middle section. And they might have been dancing to “hot licks” from a “licorice stick” – that’s fast intricate jazz music from a clarinet.
The hep cat may have been driving a “jalopy” – an older ramshackle, dilapidated car, but he might have had a “hot rod”, also an older car but one that had been “souped up” to give rapid acceleration and high speed. There were also two door “coupes” (pronounced “coops”) – a smaller version of the family sedan without a rear seat. Some coupes, however, had a “rumble seat” which was a seat behind the roofed part of the coupe where one would expect to find a trunk. The rumble seat, normally closed, could be opened to accommodate additional passengers – who were exposed to the elements. (By the way, old “geezers” often drove a “tin lizzie” – an early inexpensive Ford or other model car.)
“Roadsters” were a “snazzy” type of car that sometimes sported “fender skirts” – detachable pieces of bodywork on the fender that covered the upper portions of the rear tires. Car owners often installed a “spinner”, a knob fastened to the steering wheel that permitted the driver to steer using only one hand – thus freeing up the other arm to put around the girl snuggling up to him. Oh yes, while on the subject of cars, we mustn’t forget standard equipment on a number of cars included a “crank”. In the days of unreliable car batteries and electric self-starters, the crank, a metal arm, could be used to “turn the engine over” manually and thus start it. Kinda like starting a lawn mower with a pull cord, but harder and more dangerous because the crank could “kick back” striking the cranker’s arm.
Well, there you have just a small sample of words and expressions that are part of the living history still preserved in some of us. This terminology was useful in its time but nowadays is little more than a quaint curiosity – you know, did people really talk and act that way? Be assured we really did – and the same question will be asked in the future about what’s going on today. At least that’s how it seems to me.
Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.