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Words That Were: 1900–1919

Just think, before the early 20th century, you couldn’t drive to the movies because cars and motion pictures didn’t exist! Fortunately, the same era that popularized vaudeville and phonographs also produced the first commercial automobiles and laid the foundation for the film industry. Of course, the period from 1900 to 1919 had its serious side, too. World War I and women’s suffrage played major roles in shaping the century to come. Here are some of the popular terms and expressions that appeared and, for the most part, disappeared during that era.

Definition: self-serve, coin-operated cafeteria where cold foods were sold out of closed, see-through compartments that were refilled by kitchen staff
Note: Although still popular in parts of Europe, the automat was a precursor to both the vending machine and fast food in North America.
back-door furlough
Definition: absent without leave
Synonym: AWOL
Definition: conceited
Definition: excellent person (or thing), or an adjective used to describe such a person
deep sea turkey
Definition: canned salmon, as referred to by World War I troops
Synonyms: goldfish, sewer carp, submarine chicken
devil wagon
Definition: automobile, to a pedestrian or horse driver
Definition: long smock worn to keep clothes clean while driving
Note: Most early cars were roofless, so drivers and passengers took their chances with weather and dust.
Definition: young woman who worked on a farm in place of a man during World War I
Definition: small, cheap automobile
flying bathtub
Definition: cumbersome or otherwise inferior airplane
Synonyms: flying boxcar, flying chicken coop, flying bedstead, galloping goose, orange crate
gun opera
Definition: cowboy movie
Synonym: horse opera
harem skirt
Definition: full-length skirt gathered at the bottom to resemble Turkish pantaloons
liberty cabbage and liberty steaks
Definition: sauerkraut, hamburgers
Note: The word liberty was used to replace common words of German origin during World War 1.
Definition: short reel of film covering news and gossip that was screened before the main feature at a movie theatre
panic the house
Definition: be a huge success
Note: This would be used in reference to a vaudeville act. For example, Klondike Kate’s famous flame dance panicked the house in Yukon.
Definition: pretty girl
Definition: women’s hairstyle characterized by piling the hair high on the head and softly puffing it around the face
Note: In the 1950s, the term referred to a men’s hairstyle.
red lead
Definition: ketchup, in army slang
Definition: women’s shirt resembling a men’s shirt, with starched collar and small necktie, but tailored to a woman’s figure
sky pilot
Definition: army chaplain
Synonyms: Charlie (as in Chaplin), Holy Joe
some pumpkins
Definition: impressive persons
Synonym: some punkins
terp team
Definition: ballroom dancers
Note: The term is derived from the name Terpsichore, the Muse of dance.
ticket west
Definition: fatal wound
turn turtle
Definition: flip an automobile upside-down

Test yourself with this quiz: Circa 1900–1919.