[Ads-l] antedating Jail-bait

Peter Reitan pjreitan at HOTMAIL.COM
Thu Dec 14 18:31:55 EST 2017

The Alabama special election for Senate got me thinking about "jailbait."

etymonline has "jail-bait" or "jailbait", as "a girl under the legal age of consent conceived as a sex object," from 1928.

"Jail bait" dates to at least 1915, as something tempting that might get you thrown in jail.  The earliest exampe I found is ambiguous, but appears to refer to some sort of women who might get them in jail.

Another early example (1916) refers specifically to bootleg alcohol as "jail bait." An example from 1924 appears to refer to some sort of illegal sales scam that might get a salesman in trouble.  An example from 1925 refers to gasoline and liquor as the top "jail bait" of 1924; violations of traffic laws having resulted in the most arrests in the previous year, and the second most arrests as a result of drunkenness. An example from 1927 lists "jail-bait" in a list of carnival barkers' slang for "girls under the age of legal consent."  Beginning in 1929, Walter Winchell started using it regularly in his nationally syndicated Broadway/Hollywood gossip column, as a reference to young, beautiful women.  The earliest example notes the terms use in Greenwich Village.

"A lot of Atchison young men are flirting with jail bait this week." Atchison Daily Globe, May 15, 1915, page 10.  Admittedly, the meaning of "jail bait" here is ambiguous.  But it does appear to be related to some sort of vice.  A separate one-line item appearing shortly after this one-line item refers to booze and women ("It is said an Atchison merchant who recently went wrong, can blame it onto women and booze."), and another refers to "the show," which, in context, suggests that it was a some sort of hoochie-coochie dance ("The show lasts only three minutes, but is worth an hour, according to the Candy Kids and several Married Men.").  I guess it is indeterminate whether this is an early example of the term as it is currently understood.

"He said that he heard Upchurch one night say that he (Upchurch) had to go and get a shipment to send to the Capital Club.  Upchurch spoke of the liquor as 'jail bait,' he said." News and Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina, November 19, 1916, page 10.

"SALESMEN - . . . I hae a real deal for you fellows who have been working yourselves to death on real estate, stock or 'jail bait' deals." The Los Angeles Times, December 8, 1924, part 2, page 8.

[Headline] "Gasoline is Best '24 Jail Bait, Forcing 651 to Sign on Blotter; Liquor Draws 282 to Police Net." Great Falls Tribune (Great Falls, Montana), January 1, 1925, page 3.

"'Jail-bait' is a term applied to girls under the age of legal consent [among carnival barkers]." The Cincinnati Enquirer, November 13, 1927, page 74.

"In the cheap Greenwich Villitch dance halls, gals under 18 are known as Jail Bait." Walter Winchell's Variety column, The Akron Beacon Journal, January 5, 1929.

As an aside, I also looked briefly at how statutory rape laws were applied in the late-1970s when some of the events underlying the accusations against Moore occurred.  Surprisingly, several Federal courts were let convicted of statutory rapists out of prison on the grounds that the statutory rape laws were unfairly discriminatory against men, in that the penalties were different (if not non existent) for women accused of something similar with young boys.  The Circuits were divided and the Supreme Court, although many states fixed the loophole in the interim.  Rehnquist's 1981 opinion held that such differences were justified by the biological differences between boys and girls that resulted in differences in how girls and boys might be affected by the crime.

More surprisingly, many states, in the early 1970s at least, had laws in which statutory rape of an unchaste girl was only a misdemeanor, whereas it was a felony if she was a virgin.

The trend in the late 1970s, influenced by the baby boomers, decreased voting age, the sexual revolution and rising feminism, was to reduce the age of consent.  It was 16 in Alabama in 1979, although if the guy was 18 or younger, then the age went down to 12.  Several other states had an age of consent of 14 or even as low as 12 at the time.  Pennsylvania accidentally passed a law reducing the age of consent to the age of 13 in the mid 1970s.  The "mistake," an unintended consequence of other changes meant to protect teenage boys from prosecution for sex with girls close in age, was caught about a year later, sparking debates on whether to leave the law as it was or to raise the age again.  Many mainstream, serious opinion writers advocated lowering the age to 14.

The times they are a-changin'.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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