The year 2020 looms on the near horizon and it marks the 100th anniversary of a social experiment in the United States that is now popularly referred to as "Prohibition". The enabler of Prohibition was the Volstead Act, passed by Congress (over president Woodrow Wilson's veto) in October 1919. That centenary, this month, licenses the Language Lounge to pop the corks a bit early and look at the linguistic legacy of the 13-year period during which the quite common habit of humans to inebriate themselves was pushed underground.

As with every period in the past, we have a prevailing narrative that accompanies the 1920s — often called the "Roaring Twenties" and characterized as "a boisterous era of prosperity, fast cars, jazz, speakeasies, and wild youth" (that's from the definition in the Random House Unabridged). A lot of vocabulary from the period has a nostalgic feel to it because it did not have much of a life beyond that period: speakeasy is an example, being an establishment that existed only as a result of Prohibition. Some other vocabulary of the era is also used today mainly when we are talking about that era: flapper, Charleston (the dance), and bob (the verb, with hair as object) are other examples. Corpus evidence shows that bob as a verb is 10 times more frequent in the 1920s than in either the decade before or after it.


Another word that has a somewhat old-fashioned feel today but that had much to do with why Prohibition ever arose is temperance. It's not the case that temperance has gone completely out of style, just the fact that today we are more likely to use abstinence when talking about the avoidance of drinking, or for that matter, avoidance of any behavior that has a downward pull on one's moral or ethical well-being. In the decades before Prohibition, however, temperance was all the rage. There was, for example, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), whose membership peaked near the end of Prohibition. Both temperance and abstinence show appreciable use throughout the remainder of the 20th century; abstinence becomes more frequent around 1980.

A committee of the WCTU, 1924. Public Domain, via WikiMedia.

What our culture chooses to preserve about the past in the popular imagination, often in stereotype, is significantly determined by infotainment from and about that period. At the higher end we have the writings of such authors as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Dorothy Parker, all of whom lived in and wrote about life in the 1920s. The more penetrative middle ground of popular culture is supplied by movies and the 1920s are very fertile ground here. You can find a whole list of movies about Prohibition online, and while many of these are highly forgettable, they were watched at the time they came out and in that way made their contribution to the way we think and talk about the period today. The two themes that Prohibition-themed movies are nearly guaranteed to focus on are drinking and the kinds of crime that accompanied the suppression of alcohol. Both of these have supplied more enduring vocabulary to the lexicon of today.

Words that show a huge increase in usage during Prohibition nearly all existed before Prohibition; it was simply the case the Prohibition gave them legs. Gangster is a good example. It seems to have been coined (in the US) around 1890, but it experiences a huge increase in frequency in the mid-1920s. It collocates frequently with Prohibition, for example, in phrases like "Prohibition-era gangster."

Gangsters come in many flavors but the sharpest uptick of a particular variety was "Italian gangster," which starts to rise sharply in the early 1920s and does not slack off until the mid 1930s. This is surely because of the Italian mafia's deep involvement in the making and distribution of contraband liquor. Capeesh?

That word, whose meaning is "Understand?" or "Get it?", is probably familiar to you if you sample widely in popular culture. It has now traveled well beyond its point of origin in Italian, where it is capisce, third person singular present tense of capire 'understand'. The paper trail is only tissue-deep in some places, but one academic paper speculates that the word gained popularity during Prohibition because of the rise to prominence of the Italian mafia in the contraband liquor trade.

And speaking of contraband liquor: moonshine, a word from the 18th century that we still use for that libation, shows a large uptick in usage in the late 1910s but tapers off before the end of the 1920s. The era's most enduring word associated with illicit drinking is surely bootleg. It's a noun, adjective, and verb. Its use soared in the 1920s in phrases such as bootleg whiskey/liquor/gin/trade. But a look at bootleg today shows appreciable use of bootleg recordings/CDs/copies/tapes. The word made a metaphoric leap from the domain of drink to the domain of illicit manufacture generally.

A word you might not associate with the Prohibition era is pussyfoot. We use it today mainly as a verb, pejoratively, to characterize hesitancy in action owing to fear or indecision, as in the phrasal verb pussyfoot around. But pussyfoot has enjoyed a life as noun, adjective, and verb. In the run-up to Prohibition, a pussyfoot was one who advocated total abstinence from drink. It was also particularly associated with William E. Johnson, a Prohibition advocate who (in the other sense of pussyfoot) snuck about quietly in order to gain information about the bootleg liquor trade.

The Prohibition-era associations with pussyfoot are all faded now, but the word got a boost in usage in the 1920s that assured it a spot in contemporary language. The word's primarily negative connotation has persisted, and this is perhaps a reflection of the ever decreasing popularity of Prohibition as it dragged on. In 1933 it ended the way it began; with another Constitutional amendment, the only one that exists specifically to nullify a previous amendment.

Perhaps the term that mostly neatly characterizes the end of Prohibition is package store.

It's a term that's unknown at the beginning of the 20th century but it climbs sharply in the 1930s and still enjoys currency. When the government got out of the business of suppressing alcoholic drink, it very quickly got into the business of regulating it. Package store, in many US states, is the term for retail outlets that sell intoxicants in sealed containers for consumption away from the premises. Look for Nancy Friedman's follow-up column, about the commercial language and slang of Prohibition, later this month.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.