15 Fun Phrases Popularized During Prohibition

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

Prohibition ended 85 years ago—on December 5, 1933—but the colorful colloquialisms it brought about will live on forever. Here are just a handful of them.

1. Blind pig

An illegal drinking establishment, a.k.a. a speakeasy, that attempted to evade police detection by charging patrons a fee to gaze upon some sort of exotic creature (i.e. a blind pig) and be given a complimentary cocktail upon entrance. Also known as a blind tiger.

2. Juice joint

Yet another term for an illegal drinking establishment.

3. Jake walk

A paralysis or loss of muscle control in the hands and feet, due to an overconsumption of Jamaican ginger, a.k.a. Jake, a legal substance with an alcoholic base. The numbness led sufferers to walk with a distinct gait that was also known as Jake leg or Jake foot.

4. Ombibulous

A term made up by writer H.L. Mencken to describe his love of alcohol; he noted, “I'm ombibulous. I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all.” Mencken was also fond of referring to bootleggers as booticians and is alleged to have invented the term boozehound.

5. Skid road

A precursor to the term “Skid Row,” a skid road was the place where loggers hauled their goods. During Prohibition, these “roads” became popular meeting places for bootleggers.

6. Brick of wine

Oenophiles looking to get their vino fix could do so by simply adding water to a dehydrated block of juice, which would become wine. (And you thought a box of wine was bad!)

7. Bathtub gin

A homemade—and often poorly made—gin that was preferably served in a bottle so tall that it could not be mixed with water from a sink tap, so was mixed in a bathtub instead. Though the phrase references gin specifically, it came to be used as a general term for any type of cheap homemade booze.

8. White lightning

The whiskey equivalent of bathtub gin; a highly potent, illegally made, and poor-quality spirit.

9. Teetotaler

A person who abstains from the consumption of alcohol. The phrase is believe to have originated within the Prohibition era’s temperance societies, where members would add a “T” to their signatures to indicate total abstinence (T+total-ers). 

10. Dry

A noun used in reference to a man or woman who is opposed to the legal sale of alcoholic beverages. Bureau of Prohibition agents were often referred to as Dry Agents (though corruption among this crew ran rampant). As an adjective, it describes a place where alcohol is not served. 

11. Wet

The opposite of dry, a wet is a person who is for the legal sale of alcoholic beverages or a place where liquor is in full supply.

12. Whale

A heavy drinker. 

13. Blotto

Extremely drunk, often to the point of unconsciousness.

14. Hooch

Low-quality liquor, usually whiskey. The term originated in the late 1800s as a shortened version of “Hoochinoo,” a distilled beverage from Alaska that became popular during the Klondike gold rush. The phrase came back into heavy use in the 1920s. 

15. Giggle water

An alcoholic beverage.

The Surprising Origins Behind 9 Modern Slang Expressions

Rihanna attending a 2018 movie premiere with eyebrows on fleek
Rihanna attending a 2018 movie premiere with eyebrows on fleek
ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

Slang evolves so quickly these days—especially on social media—that it can be hard to recall how we first learned a term, much less where it actually came from. This list will help you figure out whether you should be thanking Erykah Badu, LL Cool J, or an academic journal for some of the expressions you love to throw around in conversation and online.

  1. FOMO

A marketing strategist named Dan Herman claims to have identified the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) phenomenon and published the first academic paper about it in The Journal Of Brand Management in 2000. Yet the credit for the popular usage of FOMO often goes to venture capitalist and author Patrick J. McGinnis, who used the term in 2004 in an op-ed for Harvard Business School’s magazine The Harbus to describe the frenetic social lives of his grad school cohort. (One acronym from the op-ed that McGinnis deserves complete credit for: FOBO—Fear of a Better Option.)

  1. Bye, Felisha!

A diss by any other name might still sting as sweet, but there's something satisfying about ending a conversation with "Bye, Felisha!" (Though it’s often mistakenly written as Felicia.) The phrase comes from the 1995 stoner comedy Friday, co-written by and starring Ice Cube as Craig, a young man in South Central Los Angeles just trying to get to the weekend. When the mooching bit character Felisha (played by Angela Means Kaaya) asks Craig’s friend Smokey (Chris Tucker) if she can borrow his car and then a joint, Craig mutters "Bye, Felisha." And now everyone says it, though usually as an exclamation.

  1. Lit

In the last few years, lit has been literally everywhere—in popular music, speech, memes, and a series of articles about what it actually means. People have been using the word to mean “intoxicated” since at least 1918, when John McGavock Grider, an American pilot who served in England's Royal Flying Corps during World War I, used it in his book War Birds: Diary Of An Unknown Aviator. In recent years, however, hip hop has brought the word back to describe a general excitement that can be achieved with or without substances.

  1. Woke

Neo-soul singer Erykah Badu has been credited with bringing woke into popular usage with the 2008 song “Master Teacher,” which was a collaboration with the musician Georgia Anne Muldrow. But using the word to mean “aware in a political or cultural sense” dates back to 1962, when novelist William Melvin Kelley tackled appropriation of black culture in a New York Times article entitled “If You’re Woke You Dig It.” The Oxford English Dictionary finally “woke” up (sorry) and included this timely definition of the word in 2017.

  1. Humblebrag

Humankind has probably been humblebragging since that one Neanderthal complained about how bloated he felt after eating too many woolly mammoths over the weekend. Credit for the term, however, goes to Harris Wittels, the late comedian and writer best known for Parks and Recreation. He coined humblebrag in 2010, explaining the concept through retweeted examples from celebrities on the @Humblebrag Twitter account before publishing Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty in 2012.

  1. On Fleek

This phrase was first used in 2014 by a Vine user named Peaches Monroee to describe perfectly groomed eyebrows. But fleek is defined in the annals of Urban Dictionary as early as 2003 as “smooth, nice, sweet” and 2009 as “awesome.” It quickly evolved to encompass anything that’s flawlessly on point, until adults started awkwardly using it and younger, hipper English speakers moved on to the next vernacular phrase we’re probably not cool enough to have heard yet.

  1. First World Problem

A cousin of humblebrag, this phrase is a helpful reminder to count our blessings and stop complaining about trivial setbacks, like a delayed flight or, if you're really fortunate, slow Wi-Fi on the yacht. It may feel like a relatively new addition to the vernacular, but the phrase "First world problem" has been around since 1979, when an academic named Geoffrey K. Payne used it in an article in the journal Built Environment (although Payne was talking about legitimate First World Problems, notably housing). The more ironic usage developed in the 1990s, perhaps helped along by the Matthew Good Band song "Omissions of the Omen," which included the term in the lyrics. But it didn't go mainstream until it became a self-deprecating internet meme around 2005.

  1. Yas/Yass/Yaass

Everyone’s favorite new affirmative was added to the Oxford Dictionary in 2017 and defined as “expressing great pleasure or excitement.” Many first heard it on Broad City, which debuted in 2014. But according to "Reply All," we owe its current popular American usage to the LGBTQ black and Latino ball scene of the 1980s, where attendees hollered “Yas!” at the sight of fiercely strutting drag queens. Ball culture was fertile linguistic ground, by the way: The subculture also gave us voguing (which inspired Madonna), fierce, throwing shade, and more. Call it the Kween’s English.

  1. G.O.A.T.

James Todd Smith, better known as the rapper LL Cool J, clearly loves wordplay: The letters in his stage name stand for Ladies Love Cool James. So it’s no surprise that he brought the acronym G.O.A.T. (Greatest Of All Time, pronounced like the name of the animal) into popular usage with the 2000 hip hop album of the same name. But many trace the use of G.O.A.T as an initialism to boxer and fellow wordsmith Muhammad Ali, who frequently referred to himself as "the greatest" and occasionally "the greatest of all time." In 1992, Ali’s wife Lonnie even incorporated Greatest of All Time, Inc. (G.O.A.T. Inc.) to consolidate and license her husband’s intellectual properties.

32 Forgotten Weather Words

iStock.com/JCPJR
iStock.com/JCPJR

A yowe-tremmle—literally an “ewe-tremble”—is an old Scottish dialect word for a week of unusually cold or rainy weather beginning in the final few days in June that is literally cold enough to make the season’s freshly-sheared sheep “tremmle,” or shiver.

Depending on what the weather is like where you are, this could be the perfect word to add to your vocabulary. But even if you’re currently enjoying a bout of sunshine, or enduring a sudden downpour of rain, the most obscure corners of the English language have precisely the right word for you.

1. Armogan

Presumably derived from an even older French dialect word, armogan is a 19th-century naval slang name for fine weather—in particular, the perfect weather for traveling or starting a journey.

2. Bengy

This word, pronounced “Benji,” is an old southeast English dialect word meaning “overcast” or “threatening rain.” According to one theory, it might derive from an earlier word, benge, meaning “to drink to excess.”

3. Blenky

To blenky means “to snow very lightly.” It’s probably derived from blenks, an earlier 18th-century word for ashes or cinders.

4. Bows of Promise

Rainbows were nicknamed "bows of promise" in Victorian English, in allusion to the story in the Book of Genesis.

5. Cairies

Cairies are swiftly moving clouds. An old Scots dialect word, it derives from cairy (a Scots pronunciation of “carry”), a local name for a burden or a load to be conveyed.

6. Drouth

This is an old Irish-English word for the perfect weather conditions in which to dry clothes. Probably related to an identical Scots word for an insatiable thirst (or for an insatiable drinker), drouth was borrowed into American English in the 19th century, where it eventually became another name for a drought.

7. Flenches

If the weather flenches, then it looks like it might improve later on, but never actually does.

8. Foxy

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, if the weather is foxy then it’s “misleadingly bright”—or, in other words, sunny and clear, but freezing cold.

9. Gleamy

If, on the other hand, the weather is gleamy then it’s intermittently sunny, or as one 19th-century glossary put it, “fitful and uncertain.”

10. Gleen

A gleen is a sudden burst of warm sunshine. Dating back to the 17th century (if not earlier), it’s probably related to an earlier Scandinavian word, glene, for a clear patch of sky.

11. Halta-Dance

As well as also meaning “to run around frantically,” halta-dance is a heat haze.

12. Hen-Scartins

This is an old northern English word for long, thin streaks of cloud traditionally supposed to forecast a rain. It literally means “chicken scratches.”

13. Hunch-Weather

Hunch-weather is an old 18th century name for weather—like drizzle or strong wind—that’s bad enough to make people hunch over when they walk.

14. Lawrence

There’s an old myth that Saint Lawrence of Rome was martyred by being burnt alive on a red-hot gridiron. Although it’s doubtful whether this is true (a more likely explanation is that the Latin announcement of his death, passus est, “he suffered,” was misread as assus est, “he was roasted”), Saint Lawrence’s gruesome death has long been the subject of folk tales and works of art. Not only that, but he’s now considered the patron saint of cooks and restaurateurs (for obvious reasons), while the boy’s name Lawrence has been an American dialect word for a shimmering heat haze since at least the early 1900s.

15. Mare’s Tails

Mare's tails are cirrus clouds—long, thin wisps of cloud very high up in the sky—that are traditionally said to “point” toward fine weather.

16. Messenger

A single sunbeam that breaks through a thick cloud can also be called a messenger.

17. Mokey

Moke is an old northern English word for the mesh part of a fishing net, from which is derived the word mokey, describing dull, dark, or hazy weather conditions.

18. Monkey's Wedding

In South African slang, a monkey's wedding is a “sun-shower,” or a period of alternating (or simultaneous) sunshine and rain. No one is quite sure where this expression comes from: one theory claims that it could derive from an earlier phrase, monkey’s wedding-breakfast, meaning “a state of confusion,” or else it could be a vague translation of an even older Portuguese saying, casamento de raposa—literally “a vixen’s wedding”—that was likewise used to describe a sunny shower of rain.

19. Moonbroch

This is an old word from the far north of Scotland for a hazy halo of cloud around the moon at night that was supposedly a sign of bad weather to come.

20. Queen's Weather

In 1851, Charles Dickens wrote “the sky was cloudless; a brilliant sun gave to it that cheering character which—from the good fortune Her Majesty experiences whenever she travels or appears publicly—has passed into a proverb.” The “proverb” in question here is actually the expression queen's weather, a 19th-century nickname for sunshine, derived from Queen Victoria’s reputation for always seeming to bring fine weather with her on her official visits.

21. Pikels

Pikels are heavy drops or sheets of rain. The word pikel itself is an old Lancashire dialect name for a pitchfork, while the local saying “to rain pikels with the tines downwards” means to rain very heavily indeed.

22. and 23. Smuir and Blind Smuir

This is an old Scots word meaning “choke” or “smother,” which by extension also came to be used to refer to thick, stiflingly hot weather. A blind smuir, oppositely, is a snow drift.

24. Sugar-Weather

Sugar-weather is a 19th-century Canadian word for a period of warm days and cold nights—the perfect weather conditions to start the sap flowing in maple trees.

25. Sunblink

This is a 17th-century Scots word for a single glimmer of sunshine …

26. Sunwade

… and sunwade is an old Yorkshire word for a haze of cloud around the sun.

27. Swullocking

This is an old southeast English word meaning “sultry” or “humid.” If the sky looks swullocking, then it looks like there’s a thunderstorm on its way.

28. Thunder-Head

Herman Melville used the old English word thunder-head in Moby-Dick (1851). It refers to a thick, rounded mass of cloud on the horizon, usually indicating that a storm is on its way.

29. and 30. Twirlblast and Twirlwind

Both twirlblast and twirlwind are old 18th-century names for tornados.

31. Water-Dogs

These are small rainclouds hanging individually below a larger bank of cloud above.

32. Wethergaw

Gaw is an old word for a drainage channel or a gutter, the U-shaped cross-section of which is the likely origin of the word wethergaw—an old Scots nickname for a rainbow.

This post first ran in 2015.

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