20s Gangster Slang

, Staff Writer
Updated September 14, 2017
gangster slang by man with flapper
    gangster slang by man with flapper
    inhauscreative / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Do you have the moxie to learn a little 20s gangster slang? They were called the Roaring 20s because the Jazz Age was a fast time when juice joints were filled with molls and gold diggers in glad rags. So quit lollygagging and get started talking like a 20s gangster. Whether you're planning a flapper party, want to get more out of old gangster movies, or are just up for a laugh, 1920s slang will make you the niftiest sheik or sheba at the speakeasy.

Gangster Slang of the 1920s

The gangster slang of the 20s, like the slang of any generation, was conceived in the hives of counter-culture. It wasn't so much a code to keep the police in the dark, as many movies and legends would have you believe, but a special code among those who wanted to appear as insiders. Some of the most popular ganger slang words of the 20s included:

  • bean shooter - a gun
  • beef - a problem or complaint
  • blow one down - to kill someone
  • bop - to kill
  • bruno - an enforcer; gangster tough guy
  • bump - to kill
  • button man - a hit man; killer for hire
  • can opener - safecracker
  • Chicago lightning - gunfire
  • Chicago overcoat - a coffin
  • chopper squad - guys with machine guns
  • clip - to kill
  • drop a dime - to inform on someone; to tell the police who committed a crime
  • finger - identify someone to the police
  • gat -gun
  • glomming - stealing
  • goon - thug
  • lookout - an outside man, watching to make sure criminals don’t get caught in the act
  • mark - a sucker; someone criminals will cheat or swindle
  • mouthpiece - a gangster’s attorney
  • nicked - stole
  • pack heat - to carry a gun
  • peaching - informing on someone
  • pop - to kill
  • stool pigeon - a person who informs the police

1920s Law Enforcement Slang

During the 1920s, gangsters and others used a lot of slang words to describe police, jail and other realities of law enforcement. From enforcing prohibition to keeping up with gangsters, coppers sure had their hands full during this decade!

  • big house - prison
  • bing - solitary confinement in prison
  • bracelets - handcuffs
  • bulls - uniformed police officers or prison guards
  • buttons - police officers
  • buzzer - badge carried or worn by a police officer
  • can - jail or prison
  • clubhouse - police station
  • cooler - jail
  • copper - police officer
  • dick - police detective or private detective
  • fuzz - police officer
  • gumshoe - detective
  • in stir - in jail
  • nailed - caught by the police
  • nippers - handcuffs
  • shamus - private detective
  • shyster - a lawyer
  • snooper - a detective

Not all slang of the 1920s tied directly to gangsters and law enforcement. Discover some of the everyday slang, such as slang words for money, made popular during the Jazz Age.

  • baby - a term of endearment for one’s sweetheart (male or female)
  • bangtails - racehorses
  • bee’s knees - fabulous, outstanding, wonderful, stupendous
  • behind the eight ball - in a difficult or precarious position
  • big one - death
  • big sleep - death
  • blow - leave (as in “blow this joint”)
  • cat’s meow - great, excellent, outstanding
  • clip joint- overpriced nightclub
  • dough - money
  • drum - a speakeasy
  • glad rags - fancy apparel
  • grifter - con man
  • ice - diamonds
  • kisser - mouth
  • lousy with - having a lot of something
  • noodle - one’s head or brain
  • scratch - money
  • shylock - a loan shark
  • swell - terrific, wonderful, great
  • wingding - a party or celebration

1920s Slang for Cars and Other Vehicles

Cars and other vehicles were referred to by a number of slang terms during the 20s.

  • bent cars - stolen automobiles
  • boiler - a car
  • bucket - a large car
  • bus - an old car
  • crate - a car
  • flivver - a Ford vehicle
  • heap - a car
  • iron - a car
  • jalopy - an old car
  • meat wagon - ambulance
  • struggle buggy - the backseat of a car

1920s Slang for Women

Women were referred to by a number of slang terms during the roaring twenties, both within gangster culture and other aspects of society.

  • babe - a woman
  • bearcat - a fiery woman
  • bim - a woman
  • broad - a woman
  • canary - a female singer
  • dame - a woman
  • doll - a woman
  • dumb Dora - a stupid woman
  • flapper - young woman with short hair who wears the latest style and likes to party
  • frau - slang for someone’s wife
  • gal - a woman
  • gams - a woman’s legs
  • kitten - a woman
  • looker - an attractive woman
  • moll - one’s girlfriend
  • sheba - a woman with sex appeal
  • sister - a woman
  • skirt - a woman
  • squeeze - a girlfriend
  • tomato - a pretty woman
  • worker - a woman who uses a guy for his wealth

1920s Slang for Men

The fairer sex wasn’t the only one referred to by slang terms during the 20s. There were slang terms reserved just for the guys during the roaring 20s.

  • boob - a stupid man
  • cake eater - a lady's man
  • cat - a guy
  • dewdropper - an unemployed man who spends his days sleeping
  • egg - a man
  • flaming youth - male equivalent of a flapper
  • guy - a man
  • jobbie - a man
  • pal - a man
  • palooka - a man who is not bright
  • sap - a man who is not smart
  • sheik - an attractive man

Historical Perspective on Gangster Slang

In the 20s, no one was more counterculture than gangsters. Gangsters were off-color, played by their own rules and didn't give a hoot about what anyone thought of them (everything your parents didn't want you to be).

Jazz Age

Even though everybody knows that 20s mobsters often acted like monsters, there's something charming about the seedy underbelly of the Jazz Age. The slang of that time is infused with nostalgia, that thing that gives people the notion of a better time.


Politics of the Day

When one hears the slang of times long gone, it's easy to forget that alcohol was illegal and unsafe, that corruption in government ran rampant and that minorities and immigrants were more marginalized than ever.

Jazz Age Slang Today

What seemed dirty or off-color almost a hundred years ago seems rather tame by today's standards. Using the slang of yore can add character and charm to your dialect and make the obscene less so.

  • Using slang from a long time ago, you can get away with a whole lot more. Only ancient slang can make young ladies blush and grannies laugh.
  • What made the gangsters of the 20s the types of guys you didn't want around your neighborhood now makes everyone want to hear you talk. You'll be the bee's knees.
  • Instead of talking about a woman's legs, you can talk about her gams. Instead of saying a woman is hot, you can say she's a doll or a sheba.

Whether you’re hosting a 1920s themed party or if you’re just interested in the language of the roaring 20s, these terms provide an interesting glimpse of a decade gone by.


Expand Your Slang Vocabulary

If you’ve enjoyed learning some gangster slang from the 1920s, don’t stop there. The history of American slang words is fascinating. Take the time to explore slang from other eras. Whether you focus on decades long in the past or if you’re more interested in modern slang, there’s always something new to learn when you start studying slang. The more you learn, the more you’ll know about how slang affects the English language.