Flapper Talk and the Reflection of Language on Human Culture

As a writer I am fascinated by processes which shape and form human thoughts and ideas in a social context. This interests me because as a writer I feel it is my duty to present human beings in their full and unadulterated light. Therefore, as we study different cultures and ideas, we see patterns and similarities. I believe this can only benefit a writer in the long term.

The more we learn about a point in time of human history, the better we can extrapolate how people thought and acted in other historical frames. I fully believe this and have always used this philosophy in writing fiction. (It particularly helps when writing science fiction, which at its core is a genre of ideas and extrapolation.)

As to fundamental changes in social process, it can take shape in disparate historical moments which come together and  form a new dynamic which ushers in sweeping cultural changes, even right down to the very language itself. Being a writer this is where my main focus lies: in language.

Case in point: Flappers from the 1920s.

As a social phenomena viewed through the lens of an amateur student of history,  this period interests me on many levels, including but not restricted to: rebellion against social mores, questioning of authority, religion, government, and ultimately, questioning oneself.

The language of flappers encapsulates what I am trying to get at here. The mode of language (which itself mirrors the faster pace and rhythmic values of the Jazz music it was patterned after) is itself removed from the surface meaning it carries. What I mean by this is, a flapper can say one thing by stringing along what appear to be separate and meaningless phrases, yet from its entirety present whole new concepts which have nothing to do with the individual phrases. Sometimes, the separate meaning even distances itself from what one might consider to be the meaning of the gestalt phrase.

It’s really quite incredible. That’s not just language. That’s creativity on a word level. I’m a professional writer. I find that absolutely  fascinating.

To be sure, some of this was pure dodge by the flapper. She could converse about things hitherto considered taboo by an older generation or religious figures who tried to control her life. They heard her speak and it either sounded like gibberish (which it never was, it was carefully crafted) or the meaning they heard was not the meaning the flapper meant. They heard something innocuous, but the flapper was actually describing an event she wanted to remain hidden. So the flapper could speak and move about in a society she was rebelling against, talking openly about the things she wanted to talk about. Only others who were clued in to the patterns and rhythms of speech could decode her true message, and relate on the philosophical plane the flapper was accessing.

This activity was not exclusive to flappers. The Valley Girl slang from the 1980s is another, albeit more recent, example. There are myriad examples throughout human history and they are not exclusively female oriented. I’m choosing the flapper craze because I find the total rebellion which came in concert with the attitude of the flapper as an event I can understand, and sympathize with.

I have always maintained a healthy society is one which questions authority in all things. There is also a personal aspect to my interest in flappers from reading something at a very early age which engaged both my humor and my interest, but that is an essay for another day, perhaps.

The vocabulary of the flapper (and her male companion who picked up on the language and used it) is beyond the scope of this essay. But I would be remiss if I didn’t give one example. I provide it here:

“Check the darb flatwheeler in the red dog kennels. He dropped the pilot on his blue serge, and now he’s manacled to a biscuit.”

Thus the translation:

“Look at that wonderful young man in those red shoes who is accompanying that young girl. He divorced his old wife, but now he’s married to a very pretty girl who likes to pet (engages in sexual contact but no intercourse) with other men.”

As you can see, the flapper was able to talk about things considered taboo in the society she was actively engaged in liberating herself from. And she did not only use language, the flapper style and look and behavior combined a total package of liberation and iron-willed rebellion against authority.

That rebellion and the shape (literally) it took, will be the topic of a future essay on flappers, and their impact on sexual, religious, and political history.

The language of the flapper was itself an expression of liberation from authority and sexual constraint.

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