Recently, I've started working on a new story, set in 1905. Previously, my books have been set in the 1870s, a time which was very familiar to me. I'd spent years researching that era to develop a living history character and knew it intimately. But, 1905 brought a whole new set of slang to the plate.
I promptly secured the Dictionary of American Slang for my reference library and dove in. And discovered several surprises!
The first concerned the word "okay." As a writer of historical romance, I've always been told that "okay" is an anachronism and advised to use "all right" instead. Critique partners, contest judges, and editors were all in agreement on this.
Now, though, I was in 1905. It seemed to me that my characters might very well say "okay." Just to be sure, I opened up the dictionary and checked only to discover "okay" (both as a form of agreement and as an adjective meaning "acceptable") has been in general usage since 1839! New York and Boston area writers began using "OK" in the early 1800s to mock local bumpkins who said "all korrect."
The new book has a child and it seemed natural for other characters to refer to her as a "kid." Yet, critique partners weren't sure so it was back to the dictionary. "Kid" has been used as a noun meaning "child" since 1599 and as an adjective for "younger" since 1884.
My partners also questioned "confetti." Of course, this isn't a slang word, so I had to refer to a different dictionary. The word comes from the Italian word "confetto" which was a small candy traditionally tossed at Italian carnivals. The custom was adopted into the throwing of symbolic paper at weddings in England. Another website revealed the candy represented fertility.
Yet another area of concern centered around "con". My trusty disctionary revealed "con game" has been used to mean "swindle" since the 1880s and "con" meaning "scam" since the early 1900s. "Confidence man" began usage by 1889 and "con man" by the early 1900s.
My dictionary revealed a host of other surprising slang use dates, noted as I paged through looking for other words. I've been surprised and delighted by many of them. Some old terms, no longer in use, have brought smiles to my face. Some terms I have always thought of as having originated post-1950 have actually been around for much longer.
I invite you to take a look yourselves. See The Dictionary of American Slang, the Online Etymology Dictionary, or The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. If you have your own favorites, let me know so I can add them to my library. I'd also love to hear about any surprises you've encountered.