The Grammarphobia Blog

Slanguage arts

Q: I write young adult fiction. I’m fiddling with something that takes place in he 1930s and I’m looking for a good way to find slang from the time. I need to know whether words like “copper,” “flatfoot,” “swell,” “beat it,” and “scram” were used in that period. Any ideas?

A: The best source for US slang is the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, by Jonathan E. Lighter. Unfortunately, only the first two volumes ( A-G and H-O) have been published so far. I discussed several other references last summer in a blog item that you might find helpful.

Since then, I’ve stumbled across a website that purports to do what you’re looking for: the Historical Dictionary of American Slang. You put in a word and out pops the date when it was first used.

Unfortunately, the results are spotty. The dictionary did OK on “copper” (1846), “swell” (1926), and “scram” (1928), but it slipped up on “flatfoot” (1912) and “beat it” (1691), according to Random House and other reliable references.

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