“Jake” was a popular slang word from the Roaring Twenties/Great Depression era and was used to indicate that a person or thing was in good order.

Synonyms for “jake” include “okay,” “hunky-dory,” and “copacetic.”

“We’ve got the picnic basket, the sandwiches, the beer, gas in the car – everything’s jake. Let’s go!”

Me and My Gal with Spencer Tracey.
Me and My Gal with Spencer Tracey as Danny Dolan, and Joan Bennett as Helen Riley.

A Very Jake Flick

I hadn’t heard the word “jake” used in ages and had almost forgotten about it when a few weeks ago I caught Me and My Gal, a 1932 drama/comedy/romance that was on the Turner Classic Movies channel.

Starring a very young Spencer Tracy as Danny Dolan, a raffish police detective covering New York’s waterfront and Joan Bennett as Helen Riley, the gorgeous diner cashier with whom he falls madly in love with, the film is sassy, brassy, and a lot of fun.

If you approach the movie with a 1930s mindset and do a certain amount of cultural decoding, you begin to realize the makers of Me and My Gal were trying to create something we would now describe as hip, with cool characters and brisk situations. And to establish the street savoir faire of the leads, both Tracy and Bennett use “jake” liberally in their lines. Most notably towards the end, after solving a crime, saving a sibling, and winning reward money together, the two express their growing appreciation and affection, with Tracy turning to Bennett’s character and exclaiming “Helen, you’re jake!!” to which she responds “Tom, you’re jake, too!”

Actually the above use alludes to the expansiveness of jake’s definition. “Jake” can be anything from merely “okay” or “fine” to “wonderfully complete,” which was the meaning the movie’s couple intended.

Robert Redford ‘s con man character said “jake” in his 1973 film The Sting, which fittingly enough was set in the early 1930s. If I remember correctly, he used it in the beginning of the movie to describe his happy state of mind as well as his financial status to his burlesque hall girlfriend.

My Mom Was Jake

My mother used the expression ”Everything’s jake” a lot, especially when I was very little. I think she enjoyed the slightly louche, gangster-talk sound of it.  She’d usually use it as a pronouncement that things were going well or were going as planned.  Sometimes, I could tell by the slight hesitation in her voice, that she said something was jake when it wasn’t, in order to reassure herself that things would work out in the end.

I remember once when I was 4 or 5 years old, I did something either at home or in kindergarten, that me feel tremendously bad – embarrassed, humiliated, ashamed – big feelings a little boy. I can’t remember now what it was that I did. Maybe I broke something or pushed somebody or made someone cry. But that early evening, my mother came into my room to comfort me again.  As she had done earlier, she gently unpacked the trouble for me, showing me what I did wrong and what I could make right. She told me how once she had done something very similar to what I had done, but she gave her story a funny happy ending.

And then as she tucked me in and gave me a good night kiss she held my hand and said, “Now don’t worry. Tomorrow everything is going to be jake. Guaranteed.” As she turned off the light, in my little room in my tiny bed, I suddenly felt light as a feather and as if it were the sunniest day on the warmest beach.

God was in his heaven, and all was jake with the world.

14 thoughts on “Jake”

    • Good catch, although time-wise things are a little bit mixed-up in that film. Notably the Scott Joplin ragtime music dates from the early part of the 1900s.

  1. Huh, interesting. My mother used to say we were dressed like a Jake if we were dressed sloppily. She wouldn’t let us go out of the house looking like a Jake. I’m from a farm town in central Ohio. Born in 1953.

    • Hmmm. Hadn’t encountered that use of Jake before, but it doesn’t surprise me. As idioms transverse America and even the world, they often undergo a transmutation in all sorts of directions. Thanks for your heads up. The important thing about idioms, at least for this blog, is that they give us a sense of the past, a little thrill, and a lot of personal memories. Which your account of Jake seems to do.

    • Omg!! My dad was born in Carey, Ohio in 1957 and he also uses it this way!! His father was born in 1899. If I put my feet up in the car window, my dad would say “Stop that, you look like a Jake from the hills.” .

  2. I was just looking up if what my mom used to say to us- “don’t go out of the house looking like a a jake” was a common idiom and I came across this with melody’s comment above!
    I am from a small town in west Virginia directly across the river from ohio.

    • Quick research says “jake” can also refer to a type of bootlegged hard liquor flavored by Jamaican ginger and denatured alcohol. Subsquently, this drink was sometimes called jake-leg because the serious and permanent paralysis it could cause. Maybe in your party of the country, saying someone looked like a “jake” was the equivalent of looking like a wino or a meth-head. You know, like somebody who is disheveled, confused and seriously disabled.

  3. Hi. We’ve just looked this up because my husband remembered the first time he met my mother and had offered her more tea or coffee or something of that ilk. “No, she’s jake,” replied my mum, to the total confusion of my then boyfriend.

    I don’t recall my mum using this so often when I was a child, but it is firmly in her lexicon now and used (probably) on a daily basis. She is probably keeping the expression alive for the whole of New Zealand.

  4. I grew up with my dear father, Papa, always saying “ that’s just Jake” at he completion of some challenging task or bit of work that took some figuring out. His name was Jacob (Jake) as is my new first grandson.

    This story from disappearing idioms is very special.

  5. Raymond Chandler has Philip Marlowe and others using this phrase. That’s where I first came across it, but have never heard it used in conversation by anyone.


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