Edward Southerland: Nancy Drew and the Mystery of 23,80
By Edward Southerland
Aug 4, 2017
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Last week I watched all four of the 1938, 1939 Nancy Drew movies starring Bonita Granville. The programmers featuring the famous teenage detective are fun and a good example of Hollywood’s factory system at work.

In one of the movies, Nancy and her boyfriend, Ted, use a bit of slang that I could not decipher. “I’ll bet you 23,80,” one of them will say as they try to figure out the mystery. The captioning on the television rendered the phrase, “23, 80”.

The term baffled me years ago when I saw the films for the first time, and although I had dug around a bit, I had not found out what it meant. That was then, the long ago days before the World Wide Web. It took a while, but I finally came up with the answer.

“23,80” was actually “23.80,” with a decimal, and what should have preceded it in the captioning was a dollar sign—$23.80. It was the weekly take home pay for an employee of the Works Public Administration, the New Deal relief effort to put the unemployed to work. The amount became a slang term of the day to indicate something small or insignificant, not very much.

There are other mysterious slang anachronisms such as “$23.80” scattered through books and movies, and they are often very hard to decipher. While adapting a Ring Lardner short story titled “Zone of Quiet” to a television script a few years ago, I came across a slang reference I couldn’t figure out.

Lardner was the absolute master of dialogue; his ability to render into the written word the way people actually spoke was uncanny. The story played out as a series of conversations between a young nurse and her patient. Lardner wrote it in 1920s, so it reflects the language of the time.

The nurse uses the term “G.F.” and “B.F.” a number of times. Those are easy to figure out from the context—“girlfriend” and “boyfriend,” but what does she mean by “T.L.” Here’s the passage.

Nurse: “I almost forgot a T.L. that Miss Halsey said about you. Do you know what a T.L. is?”

Patient: “Yes.”

Nurse: “Well then, you give me one and I’ll give you this one.”

My success in finding a solution to “$23.80,” led me to try and figure out “T.L.” Finally came the “Eureka!” moment, without the bathtub of course.

In the spring 1983 issue of American Speech, John F. Clark of the University of Wisconsin references “Zone of Quiet.” and provides the answer. “Many readers of this journal will probably know—as did the patient—what a “T.L.” is, and they may also be familiar with the forms “trade-last,” “trade” and “last-go-trade,” and perhaps other variants that describe the complex ritual in which two people agree to exchange compliments about each other (compliments normally furnished by third parties) in the spirit of a fair trade.”

Nancy Drew couldn’t have solved the mystery any better.