The 1940s were a time of enormous change in the United States. America rebounded from the Great Depression, entered World War II, and benefited from advancing technology. The new words and phrases that came out of this era reflect these major developments. Many of the terms coined in that decade are still used today, but there are some interesting origin stories behind some of the slang terms that became popular in 1940s America.
Cooking with Gas
This idiom originated in the early 1940s as an advertising slogan. As gas stoves began to replace wood-burning stoves, the phrase conveyed the superiority of using gas power. “Cooking with gas,” meant behaving more efficiently and productively. The slogan was likely coined by Deke Houlgate, an employee of the American Gas Association. He wrote the line and passed it along to comedians Bob Hope and Jack Benny, who used it in radio ads throughout the 1940s.
Popularized during World War II, this slang term refers to an enthusiastic, hard-working person. The idea of the “eager beaver” likely originated in the military, where cadets, according to one 1942 article, “most thoroughly apply themselves to tasks in ground school and on the drill fields.”
Feeling a buzz? That means you’re just a tiny bit intoxicated. This term can refer to someone who is tipsy from alcohol, drugs, or perhaps even adrenaline or caffeine. The word was first used to refer to a “pleasant sense of intoxication” in the mid 1930s, and it grew in popularity from there. With the end of Prohibition in 1933, the 1940s were full of slang terms for drunkenness, including “buzzed” and “sauced.”
In British Cockney slang from the 1880s, a “geezer” was a man in a mask or a disguise (emphasis on the “guise” part of the pronunciation). By the time the term crossed the pond in the 1940s, it meant “old man,” which is how the word is still used in American English today. But, in contemporary British slang, “geezer” means a man of any age, but specifically, the type of guy who would be called “dude” or “bro” in the States.
Think back to reading a complicated instruction manual, or perhaps listening to a high-level college math lecture. For many of us, those might as well have been “gobbledygook.” Former Texas Congressman Maury Maverick, who was then the Chairman of the Smaller War Plants Corporation, coined this word in a 1944 memo. He banned his staff from using bureaucratic language, writing, “Stay off the gobbledygook language. It only fouls people up. For the Lord's sake be short and say what you're talking about.” The neologism became so instantly popular that just a few months later, Maverick was quoted in The New York Times Magazine, defining the word as, “talk or writing which is long, pompous, vague, involved, usually with Latinized words.”
Pass the Buck
Pushing responsibility onto someone or something else, is “passing the buck.” The blame for this idiom lies in the game of poker. During the frontier days, a knife with a buckhorn handle was often used to indicate the dealer. If the player didn’t want to deal, he could skip by “passing the buck" to the next player. The gambling phrase was adopted widely throughout World War II to refer to the way some countries avoided confronting threats. The idiom became so popular President Harry Truman had a sign made for his desk that famously read, “The buck stops here.”
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