Episode 61: Prohibition

Welcome to Slow American English, the podcast for learners of American English. I’m your host, Karren Tolliver.

This is episode number 61: Prohibition

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Now for the podcast:

Prohibition

From 1920 to 1933, it was illegal to make, sell or transport alcoholic beverages in the United States. This ban was known as Prohibition, with a capital P. It is also sometimes called ‘the noble experiment’.

The ban was made official by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Because the amendment did not specifically restrict people from having or drinking alcohol, a law called the Volstead Act was passed with additional regulations.

There are several complicated reasons that Prohibition was possible in the USA.

First, because of the industrial revolution, cities became more crowded, which made life more stressful. People tried to relieve stress with alcoholic drinks. More bars and saloons opened, and more people, especially men, drank more alcohol.

Religious movements in the 1800s, such as abolitionist and other campaigns that wanted people to act better, called for temperance. Temperance means to drink less alcohol and be more responsible to your family. Temperance leagues were formed, mostly by women. Religious organizations and temperance leagues said that bars and saloons were bad places. Factory owners wanted temperance so that their workers would be more responsible and less likely to get hurt on the job.

Also, in the early 1900s, World War I caused a worldwide grain shortage. Therefore, grain was restricted from being used to make alcohol in the USA.

Although people had good intentions for passing Prohibition, the results were terrible. People were unwilling to stop drinking alcohol, so they found ways to make their own alcohol and hide it from the government.

There are several words that entered English directly because of Prohibition:

  • bathtub gin – homemade illegal alcohol made in someone’s bathtub

  • bootlegging – transporting illegal alcohol; people hid bottles in their boots under their trousers!

  • dry – place with no legal alcohol; for example, a dry county means you cannot buy alcohol there

  • moonshine – homemade, illegal alcohol; so-named because people made it at night by the light of the moon

  • speakeasy – an illegal bar

  • still – short for distillery; a device for making alcohol

Of course, Prohibition was very unpopular, and the government did not have enough money to enforce the law. There was no longer any tax money from alcohol sales. Also, the stress of the Great Depression in the 1930s made people feel more like drinking alcohol.

Organized-crime gangs grew strong from the manufacture, transport and sale of illegal alcohol. Al Capone, a powerful gang leader in Chicago, made about $60 million during Prohibition. The word ‘gangster’ comes directly from this period in American history.

Because of these and other political reasons, the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution was passed that repealed, or cancelled, Prohibition in 1933. However, states and local communities can still prohibit alcohol.

In addition to vocabulary, there are other modern effects of Prohibition. For example, some states and counties are still dry. NASCAR racing developed because bootleggers modified their cars to be faster than police cars. In addition, when Prohibition was becoming less popular just before it was repealed, the Volstead Act was amended to permit the manufacture and sale of low-alcohol beer and wine with only 3.2 percent alcohol. That is why traditional American beers such as Budweiser are so weak.

That’s the podcast for this time. Slow American English is written and produced by Karren Tolliver. Copyright 2020. All rights reserved.

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This has been Slow American English. I’m Karren Tolliver. Thank you for listening.