Book Review: Rosemarie Ostler’s Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers

Rosemarie Ostler’s Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers: A Decade-By-Decade Guide to the Vanishing Vocabulary of the Twentieth Century has been sitting on my shelf unread for many months. Purchased long ago with the intent to review it here, I just never got around to it. When I finally pulled it off the shelf I was delighted in what I found. This is a real gem of word books.

Ostler focuses on obsolescent and obsolete words and phrases, terms that are associated with a particular era. It is a compendium of American culture seen through the vocabulary of the times. Each chapter of Dewdroppers deals with a decade of the 20th century and the words and phrases that are associated with that period.

The terms in Dewdroppers weren’t all coined in the decade they are associated with and not all of them have disappeared from the language. But all of them are inexorably associated with their particular era. Reading the book is a nostalgic experience and one is bound to turn up nuggets of which one is unaware.

Ostler’s research is excellent. While a few of her etymological explanations are missing some important details (e.g., she omits the Monty Python connection in the origin of spam) there are no serious factual flaws in the book. Ostler provides no notes for the individual terms, but she does include the sources used for each chapter in endnotes.

What follows is a selection, by decade, of a few of the terms found in Dewdroppers:

In the early decades of the 20th century one could listen to ragtime on the Victrola, perhaps while reading a dime novel or looking at pictures in the rotogravure section of the newspaper. Or might venture out to a nickelodeon to catch a flicker, perhaps a newsreel followed by a two-reeler. But not all was fun and games. Doughboys were serving over there and getting a bad time of it from trench foot as well as from Jerry. The catchphrase of the period was twenty-three skidoo.

The Jazz Age of the roaring 20s was when a flapper might think a candy leg was the bee’s knees. It was the era of Prohibition and speakeasies, the rum runners and the G-men who confronted them, of cloche hats and raccoon coats, of the Red menace of Bolshevism, of Scopes Monkey Trial, and finally of Black Thursday.

The crash of ‘29 ushered in the Great Depression of the next decade, a time of Hoovervilles and the New Deal. It was the time of the Dust Bowl and the migration of Okies, of hobos and bindle stiffs. It was an age of acronyms, of NRA, TVA, and CCC. There were dance marathons where swinging cats and their hot patooties danced the jitterbug. It was also the time of the Bonus Army, the War of the Worlds, and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

The next decade was the era of WWII, of Axis and Allies, of liberty ships and victory gardens, of G.I. Joe and Rosie the Riveter. There was the phony war and Lend-Lease, America Firsters and Bundles for Britain. It was also the age of do rags, bobbysox, and zoot suits. The decade ended with the Berlin Airlift, the iron curtain, and the beginnings of the Atomic Age.

The 50s were the era of Levittown and the $64,000 Question. Fears of the decade centered around Sputnik, fellow travelers, and McCarthyism, but most of all around the H-bomb. There was another war this decade, this time against the Chicoms, a war full of bug outs and that ended with a DMZ. It was also the era of street rods and drag races, of beats and hipsters, of flipsville and kicksville.

The 60s were a bifurcated decade. It was the decade of Camelot and counterculture, of the Great Society and Vietnamization, of grunts and hippies, of afros and beehives, and of the Fab Four and Free Speech, America—love it or leave it and tune in, turn on, drop out.

The Me Decade was filled with Trekkies and future shock, leisure suits and disco balls, pet rocks and Rubik’s cubes. Musically, there was glam rock, disco, and punk. There were CBs with their good buddies and smokeys and Watergate with its plumbers and dirty tricks.

The 80s was a decade of yuppies, Valley girls, and computer geeks. The stock market was big, with insider trading, boiler rooms, and ending with Black Monday in 1987. There were parachute pants and Jheri curls, New Age ideas of auras and chakras, and urban trends of break dancing and rap.

The 90s came in with Desert Storm and went out with the dot-coms. We saw the Mother of All Battles and Y2K, neither of which lived up to their hype. There was spam and cyberpunks, Baldwins and Betties, microserfs and cybersquatters.

Dewdroppers is just a joy to peruse. Page after page is filled with interesting and nostalgic tidbits.

And if you’re wondering, dewdroppers (1920s) and slackers (1990s) are the same thing, the young and unambitious who are fond of sleep and criticized by the preceding generation. A Waldo (1980s) is an über-nerd, from the Where’s Waldo? series of children’s books.

Hardcover; 239 pages; Oxford University Press; 1 September 2003; $25.00

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