Pleasantries of the past
Language changes over the years and nowhere is it more apparent than looking at the slang that was popular in each era. While some words and phrases endure from generation to generation, more is lost—which means there are a lot of fun, cute, and sweet compliments gathering dust in old dictionaries. (What’s a dictionary, again?) So we rounded up some of our favourite praises from earlier days.
“He’s bang up to the elephant!”
Victorians who wanted to say someone was so complete, so well-rounded, that they were almost perfect, would compare them to…an elephant. Elephants were still relatively rare and novel in Western society then and elephants are known for being very smart and thoughtful so we guess it makes sense? Just don’t suggest a person looks like an elephant.
“You’re butter upon bacon!”
Know what’s delicious? Butter. Knows what’s even better? Bacon. Apparently Victorians agreed with our modern-day low-carb love affair with the two foods because this was the ultimate compliment back then. (Personally, we’ve not tried cooking bacon in butter—but now we want to!)
“He’s cooking with helium!”
Back when jitterbug, swing, and the Lindy Hop were all the rage, dancing was as much a display of skill as a chance to socialise. In the days before online chats and dating apps, heading out to the dance hall was one of the best (and only) ways to meet that someone special. One way to compliment someone’s dancing was to say this, implying they were lighter than air.
“The brightness of her cheek would shame the stars!”
It seems the modern trend of having glowing skin and rosy cheeks extends back to the days of Shakespeare when Romeo said this about Juliet. Even 400 years later, this sweet compliment might make a girl blush.
“You’ve got it made in the shade!”
While throwing shade today is slang for subtly insulting someone, back in the 1950s shade was a good thing. Telling someone they had it made in the shade meant they’d achieved a really nice, easy life—akin to living on a shady beach on a tropical island somewhere.
“He’s a truepenny, always straight-fingered!”
If this sounds a little Oliver Twist to you, then you know your Dickensian slang! In the Victorian era, honesty and integrity were prized above many other desirable traits. Telling someone this today is still a lovely testament to their strong character.
“She’s a brick house!”
“She’s a brick house/ mighty, mighty, letting it all hang out.” When the Commodores sang in 1977 about a lady built like a brick house, it became an instant classic. This derivation of a slang phrase described a voluptuous woman who was also tough and strong, traits many modern ladies still strive for.
“He’s such a dreamboat!
Dreamboats—hunky men and beautiful ladies—were staples in classic movies from the 1950s. Can’t you see Doris Day or Marilyn Monroe gushing over Rock Hudson or Cary Grant? Telling someone they’re “dreamy” is a sweet now as it was then.
“Jeepers, ain’t she a swell bird?”
The 1940s were prime time for fun slang and this World War II-era compliment is calling out an amazing girl. Birds are cute and fun and swell, which definitely sounds like a good thing. Bonus points if you can exclaim “jeepers” while whistling through your teeth.
“You’re as cute as a bug’s ear!”
Do bugs even have ears? Who knows! But it still conjures up images of tiny adorable things and many older adults will remember this classic phrase from their childhood. Are you an entomophile (insect lover)?
Check out these 13 tricks to keep bugs away on picnics that will totally freak you out.
This surfer slang became popular in the 1980s, as a way of saying something was really cool. Imagine using this compliment after a colleague’s big presentation—it’s a lot more memorable than “well done”! Okay maybe don’t do that at work.
“She’s the cat’s meow!”
This phrase dates back to the 1920s when it became popularised through gangster slang. Its meaning extends beyond “pretty” though, describing someone or something as very stylish and cool. Did you know that “gangster” was once an insult but today is used to compliment someone?
“That’s so totally radical!”
Gen-X’ers will remember this favourite saying from the 1980s with fondness. Who didn’t plan their schedule around The Simpsons or at least make sure to record it on VHS? Something might have been “bad” or “cool” but if it was really amazing then it was “radical”—totally radical was basically off-the-charts fantastic.
“Your hat takes the egg!”
If you wanted to tell someone in the 1880s that something was the best, above everything else, you’d tell them it “takes the egg.” Those Victorians must have really loved their eggs!
“Now you’re cooking with gas!”
Sometimes a marketing campaign takes on a life of its own, becoming part of everyday vernacular. This slogan, used in an ad campaign by the natural gas industry in the 1940s, was so catchy that by the 1950s it was being used as a compliment whenever someone had a great idea or was doing something really well.
“You’re all that and a bag of chips!”
Most people reading this will remember the 1990s, the era of Clueless and this epic compliment. Saying this to someone meant they were as good as a full meal deal plus an extra bag of chips. And who doesn’t love chips?
“Aren’t you just the bee’s knees!”
Apparently people in previous generations really thought insects were the cutest, as this is just one of many 1960s compliments that reference bugs. However, this isn’t just saying that someone is as cute as bees’ knees but when said about a thing, it also means high-quality or excellent. So if bees really have knees, apparently they are some top-notch joints!
“What a bricky girl!”
In the late 1800s, “bricky” meant someone was strong, brave, and fearless—like a brick. We may not have the same reverence for building materials that they did back then but it does sound like something we’d want to be! You could also substitute “plucky” for a similar compliment.
“This dip is killer diller!”
Saying something today is “killer” is definitely a compliment and it may well refer back to this 1940’s era slang for fantastic or amazing. Why “diller”? Because rhyming is fun.
Smart and savvy have always been compliments but if you wanted to say that in the early 1900s, you would use this strange “society” word.
“Baby, you’re the ginchiest!”
No, we’re not suggesting you call someone the green villain from the Dr Suess story, which wouldn’t be a compliment at all! Rather, this phrase from the 1950s was a way to tell someone they are beautiful inside and out, the total package. Be careful with this one, though. In Canada “ginch” are men’s briefs!
“That show was outta sight!”
Anything so amazing as to be practically unbelievable was deemed “outta sight” or “far out” in the 1960s. We like it now because in our modern era of information overload, being out of sight really is quite the feat!
“I’m dizzy with that dame!”
A man in the 1920s proclaiming he’s dizzy wasn’t talking about vertigo, rather it meant he was head-over-heels in love with a dame or classy woman.
“You’re a gas!”
Today “gas” doesn’t have great connotations, especially when talking about a person. However, in the 1970s calling someone or something “a gas” meant it was light and a lot of fun. We like that definition better!
“You sure do razz my berries!”
We’ll admit it: This sounds a little dirty today. But in the 1950s this simply meant that someone was very excited or enthused about something, and if that something was you—well, how sweet is that? Especially as this evokes delicious raspberries.
“No matter what happens you keep on truckin’!”
Telling someone they have tenacity and endurance, even when things are tough, is always a compliment and this is how you’d convey it in the 1970s. Because truckers just keep on driving, get it?
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