“Swellegant” and Other Jargon from the Jazz Age

From the 1920s to the 1940s, America saw the rise in a new genre of music known as “scat singing” or “vocal jazz.” Scat music involves the combination of nonsensical syllables into improvised rhythmic patterns, like the sound your grandfather might make if you accidentally dropped a dumbbell on his foot, but with far less profanities. Though this period inspired a number of talented artists, only one managed to pen his own lingo. In 1940, singer Cab Calloway published a guide for jazz or “jive” enthusiasts called Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary. Later, in 1945, Lou Shelly published a similar reference book, Hepcats Jive Talk Dictionary. It is from both of these books that I take these words and share them with the world because they’re too good to leave behind.

1) Hummer (n.): a person that is exceptionally good

Calloway wasn’t talking about the gas-guzzling SUV when he included this term in his dictionary. Hummer refers to someone that is “exceptionally good.” To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what that means. Exceptionally good at what? Plate-spinning? Pencil-pushing? Cow-tipping? Being attractive? What? Regardless, it might be prudent to explain this term ahead of time before someone finds offense when you call them an environmentally destructive, quasi-monster truck.

2) Glims (n.): the eyes

In fact, I would advise you not to use this phrase either, but for personal reasons, because it kind of grosses me out. Telling someone they have beautiful “glims” is almost as repulsive as saying they have nice eyeballs. Although, it appears to be an abbreviation of glimmer and, knowing this generation’s tendency to shorten words that aren’t long to begin with, I wouldn’t be surprised if it made its way back into circulation. Watevs.

3) Swellegant (adj.): wonderful, marvelous

Contrary to what I thought before researching this term, swellegant is not a combination of swagger and elegant, as interesting as that would be. A portmanteau of “elegant” and “swell,” swellegant was first used by singer Cole Porter around the 1930s. I’ve been using “swell” in daily conversation for as long as I can remember, so it’s no surprise that swellegant is my favorite term on this list. It’s smooth, it’s fancy, and when you say “swellegant elegance,” a dozen angels swoon, because nothing could sound more beautiful. (Although, I don’t really know how to imagine this word visually, hence my choice of featured image. Does that mysterious stock photo lady embody swellegant? I don’t know. You tell me.)

4) Collar (v.): to obtain or comprehend

In Calloway’s world, “to collar” something meant to “get” it, in both the physical and intellectual way. If you “collared a collar from a Collie eating cauliflower,” then you stole a collar from a very weird dog. If you collared that sentence even slightly, then we’d probably make good friends.

5) Storked (adj.): expecting a blessed event; pregnant

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the term “stork” as a verb was in Eyeglass in Gaza, Aldous Huxley’s 1936 novel. (This is not the only word that Huxley has created.) Where the adjective version of this word came from, however, I cannot say. If it ended up in Shelly’s dictionary, it had to have been even a little popular, right?

6) Murder (n.): someone or something excellent or marvelous; (v.) to reach perfection

Imagine if Chandler Bing had said “Gum would be murder” rather than “Gum would be perfection” in The One with the Blackout. Though the situation might’ve been a little less socially awkward, it would have also been infinitely more creepy. That’s why this term confuses me. Apparently, at the end of the 1920s, “murder” took on a new definition meaning something marvelous. Perhaps that’s where the expression, “You killed it!” came from. Perhaps Americans are secretly sinister. I don’t know.

7) Mezz (adj.): anything supreme, genuine

Mezz refers to anything that is genuine or supreme, as in “the second library mezzanine is so mezz, bro.” I could also make an American Horror Story: Coven reference here but I already quoted Friends in this article so I won’t overdo it.

8) Igg (v.): to ignore someone

Apparently, teenagers have been shortening words since the 1920s. Igg is another way of saying “to ignore” and can easily be slipped into modern day conversations. Example: “Omg, Becky, I’m totes just gonna igg Jim tmrw. K?”

9) Main Queen (n.): sweetheart, girlfriend

I don’t know why this phrase went out of style because the terms people use nowadays to describe their girlfriends or wives (mainly “Old Lady”) are significantly less glamorous. I say we start a petition to bring this phrase back because I’d much rather imagine myself as royalty than a grandmother. On second thought, that came out a little more conceited than I originally expected, so maybe I’ll leave royalty (or lackthereof) up to Lorde.

10) Kopasetic (adj.): absolutely okay

Despite sounding like a medical term, kopasetic actually means “absolutely okay.” Alternatively spelled “copasetic,” the origin of the word itself is not entirely agreed upon. Some believe it derives from a French word meaning “capable of being coped with successfully” while others believe it entered the circulation around Bill Robinson’s time. Regardless, it’s still fun to say.

Image via Shutterstock. More words found here.