© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

16 'Spiffy' Words College Students Used In 1916

Barnard College student council in 1916
Library of College
Barnard College student council in 1916

Just about a century ago, an international student at a college in the United States was telling someone what she likes best about the English language: American slang. "I must learn it," she said. "It is so unexpected."

For example, she was surprised to learn — according to a November 1916 edition of the sorority publication, the Trident -- that "brick" was the masculine equivalent of "peach" because the former was a "term of approval" for a man and the latter was a term of approval for a woman.

Crabbing And Scabbing

To further explore the matter of American college slang, the staff of the Trident sent out questionnaires to 52 chapters and affiliate groups across the nation. They asked Tri Delta members to send in slang terms that were in vogue on college campuses, such as the University of Vermont, Stetson University in Florida, the University of Wisconsin, Stanford University in California and Franklin College in Indiana.

The "unexpected" American college slang words, as published in the Trident, included:

  • Pipe. An easy course. "Does it give one time for an easy smoke?" the Trident wondered. Other campuses stuck with "cinch" or "snap" for an easy course.
  • Sluffer.Someone who doesn't take life too seriously. ("I'm a slouch and a slop and a sluffer," wrote one military man in a 1918 poem that appeared in newspapers across the country.).
  • Spiffy. A synonym for "fine" and perhaps stemming from Rudyard Kipling's British slang word "spiffing."
  • Spoofing.The word meant then — as it does still — banter or making fun.
  • Calicoing. Used mostly by Southern men, it meant having dates with a woman. (The Asheville, N.C., Citizen corroborated the meaning in a Nov. 6, 1921 story, explaining that calicoing signified "paying attention to the opposite sex.")
  • Fussing.Having a date with a man.At the University of Pennsylvania, the Trident reported, this was also known as "all out of the barrel."
  • Crabbing. Complaining.
  • Bench Work.At one campus it meant "entertaining a man on the campus," the Trident reported, presumably on a bench.
  • Dish. A woman who is good looking.
  • Crock.A woman who is not-so-good looking.
  • Prune. Someone who is peculiar.
  • Queening. Going out on dates.
  • River Banking. Strolling off campus.
  • Scabbing. Working late hours in the lab, perhaps from the union term "scab" for a strike-breaker.
  • Dope. "It may mean anything from Jamaica ginger to an ice-cream cone, including material for a Ph.D. thesis," the Trident observed. "Among other meanings, it embraces news or gossip; and Miami reports a group of women or girls talking together as a 'Dope Session'."
  • Skyrocket. A sudden, high-pitched cry, and the Trident added, "may be heard almost any time from a 'Dope Session'."
  • Slanguage Arts

    Some of the words on the Tri Delt list traveled across the country and through time. Spiffy and spoofing may always be with us.

    But some of the words were confined to specific campuses.

    The college campus, says Connie C. Eble — a linguist in the English department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill — sometimes is the most effective community for the development of geographically restricted slang words and phrases. "For example," she says, "students at UNC-Chapel Hill call the evangelical preachers who proselytize on campus Pit Preachers, because they hold forth in an area on campus called the Pit. The phrase Pit Preacher would not make sense on another campus."

    Students also have original names for buildings, says Eble, author of the 1996 Slang and Sociability: In-Group Language Among College Students, "and these of course vary from campus to campus. The most prominent one here is the Dean Dome." Officially, it is the Dean E. Smith Center for student activities.

    And she points to another term, "though it may not be slang but rather a highly informal regionalism — that refers to Carolina is Cackalacky." She adds: "One can be either from North Cackalacky or South Cackalacky."

    Follow me @NPRHistoryDept; lead me by writing lweeks@npr.org

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
    KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
    Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.