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Getting "Gatsby": The Language Behind the Novel

With Baz Luhrmann's movie adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby arriving in theaters, this week has been full of Gatsby talk. Online commentators have been writing about words coined or popularized by Fitzgerald, the slang of the 1920s "flapper" era, and even the name Gatsby itself.

Here are excerpts from three language-oriented Gatsby pieces that we enjoyed this week.

Jen Doll, "That's So Gatsby! It's More Than a Name" (The Atlantic Wire, May 6)

Gatsby is a word that's become mildly synonymous not only with Robert Redford, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or even Leo DiCaprio, but also, and more importantly, with money — and all those things that go along with liquid cash that Jay Gatsby desperately wanted: status, privilege, sophistication, class. That's why developers, including those behind the Gatsby condos on Manhattan's Upper East Side and the people who named "Gatsby Lane" in Montgomery, Alabama, have glommed onto it. Throw the name Gatsby onto something, and people cannot help but admire whatever it may be! There's another Gatsby Lane in Kings Point, New York, itself the possible inspiration for West Egg, where "there is an empty 3.4-acre plot for sale for $17 million." Brokers agree that the name is a good one, writes Harris: It's "a nice, affluent name ... very smart."

Therefore, Gatsbys of all shapes and sizes abound. There's a real estate company with the name. "Online searches turn up a Gatsby Circle in Rock Hill, S.C., a Gatsby Place in Alpharetta, Ga., and a Gatsby Court in Lansing, Mich. There is even a Gatsby Lane in Topping, Va., named a dozen years ago, which is now dotted with prefabricated houses and mobile homes," writes Harris. And Gatsby goes beyond real estate. There's a SoHo bar that serves chicken fingers. There is hair wax, and face wash, too. As Harris notes, there was a car, built in the '70s, made to look like a vehicle from the flapper age. It would likely be driven by a man who wears a J. Peterman Gatsby shirt: "Gatsby, of course, could afford stacks of these shirts—rooms of them. Never mind. All that matters is that you have one, just one. A piece of how things were."

Angela Tung, "Our Favorite Bits of 1920s Slang" (The Week, May 8)

The term flapper originated around 1921, but where it came from is uncertain. A possibility is flapper meaning "a young bird when first trying its wings," or the 17th century flap meaning "young woman of loose character."

While we might think of the flapper as a sexually free "young woman with bobbed hair and short skirts who drank, smoked and said what might be termed 'unladylike' things," the term flapper became "the popular press catch-word for an adult woman worker, aged twenty-one to thirty."

In 1926, a train which conveyed "only female workers to London each morning" was dubbed "the flapper special." From a 1927 article about giving women over 21 in the United Kingdom the right to vote: "The expression 'flapper vote' has been used by those who strongly denounced the plan to extend the vote to women between the ages of twenty and thirty." Lady Astor, "American born pioneer woman member of the House of Commons," responded:

They are not flappers; most of those 5,000,000 women who are going to vote are hard workers. They went into factories during the World War. They are still at work and now they are going to have their rightful vote.

The first election in the United Kingdom to allow women over 21 to vote was often called the Flapper Election.

Katy Steinmetz, "Why F. Scott Fitzgerald Is All Over the Dictionary" (Time NewsFeed, May 8)

F. Scott Fitzgerald may not have coined the word stinko, but he may well have been the first English-speaking soul to write it down—according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the historical dictionary business, finding the first citation is a holy grail. Lexicographers spend their days scouring texts for the earliest, datable examples of words being recorded. And often that search will end with big-shot authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald—men and women who are famous today partly because they bottled up the culture of another era. The first citation isn't absolute, but it is the result of a lot of research done by a lot of very smart people.

In the OED, Fitzgerald's name also crops up in the top citation for words like T-shirt, daiquiri and wicked (as in the way to describe cool stuff in the Boston area). "We try to find the earliest recorded usage of every word in every sense, because we're trying to tell the history of the English language," says Katherine Martin, head of Oxford's U.S. dictionaries. "Sometimes literature is the best first place to find things. Authors are innovators."

Finally, we've put together our own lists of vocabulary items from The Great Gatsby: check them out here.


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Friday May 10th 2013, 9:31 AM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)Top 10 Commenter
This article is brilliant! I am left with so many interesting words to explore. What a gift.

I first read the book more than fifty years ago and was not impressed. I was obviously too young then, and also had no experience with wealth and it's implications.

A more personal revelation. I saw the Redford movie back when, and the only thing that impressed me was the acting of the young Sam Watterston (sp?). I have followed his career over many years of television, hoping to see again a glimpse of that ephemeral, beautiful, outsider, Nick. It was naïve of me, but not a wasted effort, because Watterston is a trouper in the best sense.

I know this is off-the-subject for a Visual Thesaurus comment, but I could not resist.

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