Pottermore’s guide to the twenties: slang terms

Put on your glad rags and join us at The Blind Pig for a glass or two of giggle-water. No idea what we’re on about? Here’s our selection of the best 1920s slang words.

A flapper getting ready to write a letter
A 1920s woman at a writing desk. H. Armstrong Roberts/ ClassicStock/ Getty Images.

This is part of a Pottermore series celebrating the era of the 1920s, the decade where Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them takes place.

1. Bee’s knees

Describing something as the bee’s knees means it’s the best – as in, ‘When it comes to bars, The Blind Pig sure is the bees knee’s.’ There doesn’t seem to be a reliable source for the origin of the catchphrase, but it was likely American.

2. Beef

To have a problem, as in, ‘Hey, Percival Graves, what’s your beef?’

Colin Farrell as Percival Graves, Director of Magical Security at MACUSA and a high-ranking Auror
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

3. Bob

The flapper’s preferred hairstyle. Getting your hair bobbed – cut very short – was daring behaviour at the beginning of the 1920s, when long locks were considered feminine and short ones were definitely not. Later, actress Louise Brooks popularised this definitive style.

4. Cat’s meow

Similar to bee’s knees, also meaning something pretty good – as in, ‘Newt Scamander’s coat is just the cat’s meow.’

5. Dive

A bar serving illicitly traded alcohol in prohibition-era America – see also ‘speakeasy’ – a dive was likely to be an unappealing place, not like the more popular joints.

Gnarlak, Tina and Newt in The Blind Pig
Ron Perlman as Gnarlak and Katherine Waterston as Tina Goldstein.

6. Flapper

Flappers were fashionable young women who wore their skirts short and their hair shorter. They listened to jazz, drank champagne (despite prohibition in the US) and were far more prone to scandalous behaviour than their parents had been.

7. Giggle-water

A slang term for the demon drink – apparently particularly used to describe champagne. Famously referred to by MACUSA’s President Picquery as ‘non-negotiable’ in Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them.

8. Glad rags

A term we still use now – ‘getting on your glad rags’ in the 1920s meant pulling your best frock or suit on and heading out on the town.

Marie Fitzgerald and Sonia Watson in a scene from the play Tiptoes
Actresses Marie Fitzgerald and Sonia Watson at the make-up mirror, in a scene from the play Tiptoes. Sasha / Stringer/ Getty Images.

9. Heebie-jeebies

First coined by cartoonist Billy DeBeck in 1923, the phrase ‘to have the heebie-jeebies’ meant to be nervous or anxious. It also became the name of a dance craze, a movie and a 1926 song recorded by Louis Armstrong.

10. Hooch

The name given to the bootleg liquor sold in American speakeasies and often traded by gangsters like Chicago’s Al Capone.

Al Capone on the day of his release from jail, Chicago, 1939
Al Capone on the day of his release from jail, Chicago, 1939. Chicago History Museum/Contributor/Getty Images.

11. Joe

A word still used now to describe coffee. The term is likely to have originated in America and first appeared in print in the 1930s.

12. Kisser

Another word for a person’s mouth – as in, ‘Boom, right in the kisser.’

13. LBD

From the mid-1920s, no fashionable woman – flapper or not – would be without one of these in her wardrobe. The LBD, or Little Black Dress, was created by Coco Chanel in 1926 and quickly became a fashion staple.

14. Moll

Gun moll, or moll, was a slang term given to the female companions of 1920s gangsters, who were often involved in the illegal supply of alcohol during America’s prohibition years.

15. Moonshine

Yet another term for the illegally traded alcohol of the prohibition years, usually in this case taken to mean high-proof spirits distilled at home.

Barrels of  'moonshine' displayed on the front lawn of a house, with a clear declaration of the crime.
Barrels of moonshine displayed on the front lawn of a house, clearly spelling out the crime. Hulton Deutsch / Contributor/ Getty Images.

16. Noodle juice

In other words, a nice cup of tea – as in, ‘Hey, English guy, fancy a cup of noodle juice?’ If used on its own, the word noodle meant head.

17. Razz

In the 1920s, to razz someone meant to tease or make fun of them. It’s short for raspberry, perhaps in reference to ‘blowing a raspberry’ in derision.

18. Sap

A sap was a foolish person, an idiot – as in ‘Jacob, don’t be a sap.’

Dan Fogler, plays No-Maj Jacob Kowalski, in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
© JKR/Pottermore Ltd. ™ Warner Bros.

19. Speakeasy

A speakeasy was a bar that sold unlicensed alcohol in prohibition-era America – like The Blind Pig in Fantastic Beasts – so-called because of the need to speak quietly about such a place in public.

20. Swell

Meaning wonderful – as in, ‘Jacob sure seems to be having a swell time since meeting that Newt fellow.’

Newt Scamander and Jacob Kowalski in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them