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The word "flapper," in popular culture, is most often associated with young, progressive, unconventional women of the 1920's in the U.S.

According to both the OED and Green's Dictionary of Slang, the word "flapper" appears to have been in its earliest form a derogatory reference. In fact, the earliest meaning of the word with regard to young women was apparently "a teenage prostitute."

Per OED:

1893 J. S. Farmer Slang Flapper..(3) A very young prostitute.

GDoS also offers an earlier definition related to prostitution. The citations appear to suggest that the earliest derogatory uses of the term were British.

Yet by at least 1920 (and apparently earlier), the term seemed to have evolved into a cultural identity embraced by the "flappers" themselves, referring to young adults as opposed to children.


According to Billie Melman's Women and the Popular Imagination in the Twenties: Flappers and Nymphs (1988), two early meanings arose around the same time, one referring generally to "sexually innocent youth," and another referring to very young prostitutes.

Around 1870 'flapper' acquired two novel meanings. It came to signify a female adolescent on the eve of her début in society, recognisable by the mane flapping down her back. The image this particular usage conveys is one of indecorous and sexually innocent youth...

At about the same time 'flapper' had come to signify a child prostitute - 'A very young girl trained to vice' (1899), 'a very young prostitute' (1893) - and, occasionally, the male sexual organ. The two usages, the one celebrating sexual innocense, the other vice and deviance, are closer than they first appear to be...

The simultaneous emergence of the two meanings reflects the ambivalent attitude of the Victorians towards feminine youth and sexuality... On the one hand, the image of the socially segregated girl was one of perfect purity and chastity, the ideal of desexualised womanhood. On the other hand, this very image epitomised illicit sexuality in one of its most sinister forms: a thriving trade in child prostitution...

After the First World War... it came to mean not so much an immoral young girl as, more characteristically, a disfranchised adult (i.e. a young woman past her twenty-first birthday).

Questions

Is it true that the early contradictory meanings mentioned by Melman arose simultaneously? If so, did the more well-known meaning referring to women of the 1920s in the U.S. derive from one or the other of these early meanings, and how did the change take place?

  • 1
    @Zan700 there seem to be a few etymology theories about "flapper." The one that makes the most sense to me is, as described in GDoS, a figurative variant of the standard English meaning "a young wild duck or partridge (which flaps its wings as it experiments with flying)." – RaceYouAnytime Sep 14 '17 at 2:34
  • 2
    Flapper: 1560s, "one who or that which flaps," agent noun from flap (v.). Sense of "forward young woman" is 1921 slang, but the exact connection is disputed . Perhaps from flapper "young wild-duck or partridge" (1747), with reference to flapping wings while learning to fly, many late 19c. examples of which are listed in Wright's "English Dialect Dictionary" (1900), including one that defines it as "A young partridge unable to fly. Applied in joke to a girl of the bread-and-butter age." Etymonline – user66974 Sep 14 '17 at 9:22
  • 1
    I just realized that the citation for the OED "young prostitute" definition is the same one I found in Google Books and mentioned below; note that even it has the neutral "young girl" definition ahead of the salacious meaning, so I don't think it's so much a question of the phrase starting out as a pejorative term as it is yet another example of a feminine pet term being used as an insult occasionally. Compare "chicky (baby)" and "puss(y)". – 1006a Sep 14 '17 at 9:22
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    The word appeared in print as early as 1903 in the United Kingdom and 1904 in the United States, when novelist Desmond Coke used it in his college story of Oxford life, Sandford of Merton: "There's a stunning flapper" By 1908, newspapers as serious as The Times used it, although with careful explanation: "A 'flapper', we may explain, is a young lady who has not yet been promoted to long frocks and the wearing of her hair 'up'". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flapper – user66974 Sep 14 '17 at 9:33
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    It's funny, I always assumed that it came from dancing the Charleston; I never even questioned it. But all sorts of words started out as derogatory before becoming just accepted, "gothic" (in architecture), "impressionistic" (in art), "queer" (meaning homosexual); even the word Nazi was coined originally to mock the National Socialists. – Malvolio Sep 16 '17 at 0:36
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I think that flapper to refer to a prostitute was always only ever a minor, indirect or euphemistic use of the word.

Here are a few articles in Australian newspapers for 1903-17 which clearly use flapper to mean a fashionable, fun-loving young woman with no hint of prostitution. The term seems to be only mildly derogatory with an implication of shallowness.

In 1903 the “Gossip for Women” column tells us:

To-morrow (Thursday) about 24 "flappers" are giving a dance at the Paddington Town Hall. The name, I may mention, that has surrounded this festivity hails from the fact that the youthful hostesses all still claim the charms of "hair down." Under 17 is, I believe, the age that marks the flapper and permits the maiden to skip and jump (should she so desire) without any sudden interference from Mrs. Grundy. Lucky flapper ! The dance in question promises to be delightful, and Rita's excitement at her being included — in spite of her looks resting peace fully on ton of her head — is quite cheerful to witness.

In 1910 an article titled “The Age of Marriage – Too Old at Twenty” says”

Nowadays a girl of twenty is considered only just grown up, and, in fact, has only just got over the indignity of being called a "flapper." and at thirty a man is absurdly young …

A 1915 article about a school pantomime says:

** PANTOMIME CHILDREN ATTEND SCHOOL** Mr. Win. Anderson's "Sinbad the Sailor" Pantomime Company has amongst its members four juveniles whose ages range from 12 to 14, and their State school education is not impaired. Mr. Fanning, the manager, has what might be termed travelling transfers for them and at each town visited he sees that they attend a school during their stay. Yesterday morning Mr. Fanning escorted them to the Flinders School. Most of the '"flappers'' who form the unusually joyous ballet are a year or two above school age.

A 1917 sewing article says:

** A SIMPLE FROCK FOR THE SCHOOL GIRL. -- PRETTY AND PRACTICAL** The flapper of the family will probably want, or at any rate insistently demand, a new frock of some sort or other for holiday wear. Now I would suggest that a really charming frock might be made at home for a very modest sum […]

A 1917 article titled “Women Magistrates” is more critical of flappers but clearly makes a distinction between them and prostitutes:

[...] Another charge, on which quite a number of young, girls are arrested weekly is that of soliciting. Here, I maintain, that a man is Incapable of judging; in nine cases out of 10. The policeman' sees a flapper go up to a Tommy and ask him. "What are you doing this evening?" He comes to the conclusion that she is accosting him for immoral reasons, and he acts as duty bids him. More often than, not he is wrong. You will find that tho temptation thrown on young women from the time they are flappers is enormous. They are light-hearted, asking for excitement; they are non-moral, and that is the result of the social conditions of the present day. They are determined to have a good time at all costs. And so the girl who may merely want to be taken, to a picture palace, or who may have succumbed to the glamor of khaki, is classed together with the professional loose woman. [...]

  • Yes, I think this is right. Here is a slang dictionary defining flapper first as a hand, second as "A young girl. [Also a fledgling wild duck.]", and third as "A very young prostitute ; cf., sense 2." Feel free to include this source in your answer. You might also want to quote from some of your other sources, in case those links die in the future and so that folks can evaluate the evidence without leaving your answer. – 1006a Sep 14 '17 at 7:55
  • A stroll through the matches for flappers from the period 1900–1910 yields matches where the word also had the slang meaning "very large ears," "breakfast food" [flapjacks?], a type of knee pants for gymnasium wear, and, in British English, "the boarding school miss." The likelihood of a direct link between the young prostitute of 1893 and the sophisticate of 1920 seems to me to be pretty remote—with or without a detour past "the [British] boarding school miss" of 1907. In short, there have been a lot of flappers over the years that have only their name in common. – Sven Yargs Sep 16 '17 at 8:32
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F. Scott Fitzgerald's first collection of short stories, Flappers and Philosophers, was published in 1920; the first story uses the word flapper in dialogue about the woman in the story.

This article on Zelda Fitzgerald as the first American flapper, from 2015, says Fitzgerald called Zelda "the first American flapper;" it also quotes Zelda, born in 1900, writing in 1925 in her diary that she's gone where all good flappers go:

”The flapper! She is growing old. She has come to none of the predicted ‘bad ends,’ but has gone at last, where all good flappers go — into the young married set, into boredom and gathering conventions and the pleasure of having children, having lent a while a splendor and courageousness and brightness to life, as all good flappers should.”

A Google Ngram for "flapper" references a couple of fashion magazines in the early 1920s (Harper's Bazaar and Women's Wear--Toronto) that use the term for frivolous young girls; there's also an earlier story, Saturday Evening Post, 1912 about an arrest of a "flapper," which seems to use the more pejorative meaning.

2

In the English Dialect Society's 1892 Glossary of Northumberland Words there is the definition:

FLAP an unstable person. A young giddy girl is called a flap, or a woman or girl who does not settle down to her domestic duties, but goes gadding about, and is generally one of slatternly habits

And similarly, the 1872 A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs and Customs from the Fourteenth Century:

had the 4th definition of "flap" as:

an unsteady woman

On the other hand, from the 1884 Encyclopaedic Dictionary, the third meaning of flapper, is:

A young wild duck before it is able to fly

The 1893 Slang and Its Analogues has 7 definitions for "flapper"

  1. (common). -A little girl. [Also a fledgling wild duckling]

  2. (venery). A very young prostitute ; cf., sense 2.

The youth-meaning of "flapper" goes back at least to 1864, as there is section in The Wild-fowler: A Treatise on Ancient and Modern Wild-fowling titled "Flapper Shooting" which explains:

A " flapper" is a young wild-duck, in a state of immaturity, partly fledged, and consequently unable to soar in the air or to fly any great distance. It is very unsportsmanlike to go in quest of flappers ; and no wildfowl shooter, with any pretensions to a sportsman, will advocate the sport. It is a highly undignified proceeding to pursue them, young and helpless as they are...

So there seems to be an non-derogatory origin for the "youth" meaning of "flapper" from young ducks; but there is also a separate meaning originating from "flap" which is derogatory.

2
+200

I have spent a certain amount of time in the past perusing period newspaper and magazine archives and have the following sense of what happened.

As others have said, "flapper" had the meaning in England in the late-1800s and early 1900s of a young woman.

An item from a fashion section of a newspaper in 1914 gives a sense of the word, as it was then understood:

""Flapper" is a word that has come into fashion in America during the last twelvemonth, though the term has been familiar in England for a generation. The "flapper" period of girlhood covers what is known here as the "awkward age" - that trying stretch between alluring little-girlhood and budding young-woman hood - the rapidly growing time between 10 and 14 years when arms and legs seeem disproportionately long, feet and hands are always in the way, the hair simply will not remain tidily and becomingly arranged . . . ."

Williamsport Gazette, October 6, 1914, page 4.

I would dismiss all of the analysis of the "dual" nature of the word. I see it as having primariliy one meaning - young woman. Whether it was someone preparing for a debut or a loose young woman might change with the context or social circle of the speaker.

In the United States in 1910s, "flapper" had come to mean a young woman or older girl - generally about 14 years of age. In the mid-1910s, there was a fashion trend in which young society women wore clothing that was considered to make the women look young - like a "flapper." Flapper dresses of the 20s, for example, draped on a woman's frame in a generally slender, formless way.

An article about the fashions at the New York Horse Show of 1912 illustrates the early days of the "flapper" fashion trend:

"Distinctly the 1912 Horse Show girl is a Flapper, old ones and young ones - all strictly Flappers - boneless, absolutely whaleboneless, hipless, wastless, with shoulders so sloping that the big heavy stoles of fur toboggan off them and stop at the elbow. The muff droops heavily to within an inch of the floor, hanging from the left wrist. It is by no means a Highbrow Girl, this year's Horse Show exhibit, but there is a studio pose - a duples studio - about it. Where is the fat of yesteryear? The fat lady has gone."

The New York Sun, November 24, 1912, page 6.

St Louis Post Dispatch January 10 1913 page 13

St Louis Post Dispatch January 10 1913 page 13.

Silouhettes were slimmer, the bustle was gone, the bust was not enhanced, the corset was gone.

Towards the end of the decade, the women wearing those kinds of clothes adopted the term "flapper" to refer to themselves, and by the 1920s, the term was generally used to refer to modern, progressive young women.

A clothing advertisement for women's clothing from 1917 illustrates the youthful sense of "flapper" in fashion:

Washington Post October 21, 1917, page 18

""La Jeunesse" or "Flapper" styles are at the zenith of popularity. Short waist, quaint styles that make the older woman look young and the young woman still more youthful."

Washington Post October 21 1917 page 18.

As for the origin of the term, I tend to believe that it could have been an analogy to a fledgling bird - just reaching the point where they flapped their wings and set off on their own.

The Day Book (Chicago), January 10, 1917, page 13

The Day Book (Chicago), January 10, 1917, page 13.

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