THE SHIFTERS.

A nice piece by Ben Schott from the Sunday NY Times that is LH material in two different ways: it illustrates a “Shifter hat” (“for Mademoiselle,” $10 in 1922) and it includes a glossary, Argot of the Shifters (“It’s the patois of the wearers of the green earrings and insignia of the Mystic Order of Shifters. It’s the jazz talk of the Flappers and their cake-eating escorts” — New York Times, April 23, 1922). My favorite: “Woofy: in place of nothing else to say; generally meaningless.” (Thanks, Jeff!)

Comments

  1. I note that after ninety years of shattering social change, “mad money” is still with us, though some people apparently interpret it as “money to be spent on a mad whim”.

  2. Actually, Hat, the glossary in the 1922 Times is headlined ” ‘ARGO’ OF THE SHIFTERS ” — not “Argot.” I don’t know why, but I’ve been puzzling about it since Sept. 16, when I looked up the story upon first learning — attention, John Cowan — that “mad money” had a meaning OTHER than “money to be spent on a mad whim,” the only sense I’d ever known. Also, why “shifters”? The artwork suggests it might be related to automobiles, but Ben Schott doesn’t ask or answer that question. Any minute now, I’ll post something on this (as I’ve intended to do for months, of course).

  3. I’ve heard the shiftless young men of the 1920s called “cake-eaters” before, but I never figured out why. To me eating cake is associated with genteel tea parties, not bathtub gin, hip flasks and Stutz Bearcats.
    The only hint I get is from Wiktionary, which says they loiter at a girl’s house and get fed cake. Seems like an odd stereotype.
    Maybe I don’t get it because I don’t like cake that much.

  4. marie-lucie says:

    It illustrates a Shifter hat
    Did I miss something? the picture – apparently the manufacturer’s logo – shows a vaguely 18th to 19th century girl wearing a short but wide crinoline below a tightly laced bodice with enormous sleeves. The inked lines are thick, and if there is a hat on her head it is indistinguishable from her abundant hair. This could be a stylized theatre costume, but it is as far as can be from the typical pencil-thin, shapeless silhouette and head-hugging hair and hat of the 1920s.
    cake-eaters: “they loiter at a girl’s house and get fed cake”
    I think these are young men lacking social skills. They are clueless about how to approach girls, so if they go to a girl’s house for a visit they just sit there and her mother feels obliged to offer them tea and cake to dispel the awkwardness. Later in the night they end up as “lounge lizards” for the same reason.

  5. “Woofy: in place of nothing else to say; generally meaningless.”
    It has a meaning in other contexts. OED:
    woofy, a.1 rare.
    (ˈwuːfɪ)
    [f. woof n.1 + -y1.]
    Resembling a woof or woven fabric; of dense texture. Also transf.
       The sense of the 20th-c. quots. is unclear.
       1826 J. Baillie Martyr ii. i, Close round us hung, the vapours of the night Had form’d a woofy curtain.    1976–7 Art N.Z. Dec./Jan. 15/1 She would have none of the delirious woofy mango-swamp muck of the then Auckland School.    1983 R. Sutcliff Blue Remembered Hills xvi. 124 A moustache‥not of the woofy RAF variety but more akin to the kind worn by sergeant-majors.
    woofy, a.2
    (ˈwʊfɪ)
    [f. woof int., n.2, and v.2 + -y1.]
    Of reproduced sound: having too much bass, or bass that is indistinct.
       1932 J. H. Reyner Mod. Radio Communication (ed. 4) xx. 204 We shall experience a loss of the upper frequencies, the reproduction lacking brilliance and sounding ‘woofy’.    1975 Gramophone Nov. 819/2, I prefer the sound of the horns‥on the Decca Ace of Diamonds record, a much cleaner sound than the rather ‘woofy’ quality on the new record.
    woofy, a.3 nonce-wd.
    [Perh. f. woof v.2]
    ? Talkative.
       1960 C. P. Snow Affair xl. 371 The hairline which, when he was drunk, separated the diffuse and woofy benevolence from a suspicion of all mankind.

  6. I think that third definition should not be “talkative” but rather “vague, indefinite”.

  7. Jan: For my wife, who was born in 1943, mad money definitely has the sense “money to get you home if you quarrel with your date”, which she says was common where she grew up, in North Carolina in the early Sixties. To be sure, mad money hasn’t been an issue for her since 1979, when we met!—I may bite my thumb from time to time, but I never quarrel, at least in public. But she passed this sense on to our daughter, born in 1987, who has not been quite so fortunate yet.

  8. When I was growing up in Aliquippa PA in the 1950s, ‘cake-eater’ was the term applied to the earlier arrivers by the immigrant steel-worker Crows, Serbs, Hunkies, and such. Meaning they could eat brioche whenever they wanted, I presume.

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