Diner Week

There are people who regret that it’s hard these days to find a breakfast joint where “dress a cackle” means “make an egg sandwich,” doughnuts are known as “hunks of lead,” and cheese is “maggot.”

I’m not among them.

If diner lingo, soda jerk jargon, luncheonette slang, hash-house Greek—or whatever you call the colorful, often inscrutable argot used by waiters and short-order cooks in a certain kind of bustling American restaurant most popular in the first half of the 20th century—is dying, it’s going out like an opera diva: anything but quietly, and with one too many encores.

As early as 1936, Harold W. Bentley wrote in American Speech that the “craze” for “fantastic, grotesque, or witty labels for the food combinations from the kitchen” was waning due to the influence of chains and department stores, where such linguistic contortions—a hallmark of locally owned soda fountains and greasy spoons—were seen as déclassé. Decades later, a 1967 American Dialect Society survey of “Soda Fountain, Restaurant, and Tavern Calls” heard in one Lawrence, Kansas café warned that “the traditional calls reported in this article are now moribund.” And yet, here we are more than 50 years on, still talking about them.

Where did this beloved argot come from? Where did it go? And why, if it has been “moribund” for decades, can it still send otherwise sensible eaters and writers into unseemly paroxysms of nostalgia?

As any diner-lingo nut will tell you, mnemonic systems for vividly relaying orders from customer to cook seem to have arisen sometime in the 19th century, when fast casual American dining was coming into its own. The first diner—a converted horse-drawn freight wagon that served sandwiches, pie, and coffee—debuted in 1872, ushering in an era of simply and durably built eating establishments that served food quickly and stayed open almost all the time. Soda fountains—simple dispensers that evolved into elaborate marble shrines to fizz—began to appear in the 1820s and 1830s, and their popularity as distributors of non-alcoholic bubbly concoctions was helped considerably by Prohibition a century later. 

In urban centers like Chicago and New York, lunch counters—places where middle-class workers could pop in for a quick bite away from their desks—became especially popular with women who, entering the clerical field, suddenly had money to spend on food they didn’t have to prepare for themselves. What united all of these places was the experience of going to a counter, telling your order to a server, who in turn barked it at a cook, and watching, perched on a stool, as your meal (or drink) materialized before your very eyes. The phrases those quick-tongued servers used—whether to relay an order memorably and succinctly, to make their co-workers laugh, or to amuse their customers for tips—became what we think of as luncheonette slang.

Even now, when you go for breakfast at a neighborhood diner or even a Waffle House, you’re in it not just for the grease, but also for the show.

“An egg fried on both sides, but with the yolk still runny” takes a lot longer to say than “over-easy,” and many useful abbreviations born in the bustling hash house (“sunny-side up,” “O.J.,” “B.L.T.,” “mayo”) have found a permanent place in our everyday language. But the popular theory that this kind of shop talk was all about efficiency starts to fall apart when you consider a phrase like “Adam and Eve on a raft—and wreck it,” as someone allegedly called out when Henry Ward Beecher once ordered scrambled eggs on toast. The more examples you read (like “give it the hotfoot” for “toast it,” “give it to Hitler” for “throw it out,” “put out the lights and cry” for an order of liver and bacon), the clearer it seems that hash-house Greek is less a tidy system of logical abbreviations than something more like the American equivalent of Cockney rhyming slang, to note one apt comparison many linguists have made. The primary goal is virtuosic obfuscation.

Though some terms seemed to go on to more-or-less standard use nationwide (in part, I think, because linguists, newspaper and magazine columnists, and, later, film and TV writers, were bonkers about recording this stuff almost from the start) many others would necessarily have been local, improvised inside jokes by practiced wordsmiths—the product of what today we might call freestyling. At the height of the soda fountain’s popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, when the International Association of Ice Cream Manufacturers offered formal training through “Sundae Schools,” soda jerks as skilled in syrup mixing as they were in wordplay were sometimes known as “licensed fizzicians.”

It’s not hard to see how sidling up to a counter is a little like taking a seat in a theater: Even now, when you go for breakfast at a neighborhood diner or even a Waffle House, you’re in it not just for the grease, but also for the show. It’s important to note, then, that diner lingo is not something diner customers (who are really just a passive audience for all this) were expected to master. On the contrary, partly because some terms (like “ninety-five” for a customer who leaves without paying, “eighty-one” for a party who haven’t been served yet, and “George Eddie” for someone who doesn’t tip) were used by staff to talk about the clientele right in front of them, patrons cracking the code would’ve been viewed as something between an annoyance and a disaster.

Accepting that this slang is at times deliberately obtuse should come as a relief, if it saves you from twisting into strange linguistic contortions to explain the (allegedly obvious, clever, or time-saving) origins of diner terms you don’t understand. For examples of this unfortunate pastime, try asking any diner geek where “eighty-six” came from, or consider the California Folklore Quarterly’s 1945 explanation for why in one Fresno diner, buttermilk was known as “Arizona”: “Perhaps Californians feel that this neighboring state is somewhat rural, and that buttermilk is a more popular beverage in country districts than in cities.” Hmm.

Diners, and with them their peculiar patois, declined for reasons we’ve all heard: the return of alcohol and the rise of bottled drinks hurt soda fountains; interstates begat drive-ins and fast-food joints that replaced the small-town diner; national chains undercut mom-and-pop shops everywhere. By the 1950s or 1960s, it would’ve been significantly harder to find someone who’d call in your hamburger with onions as “chewed fine with breath.”

The loss of this lingo has been tenderly, sometimes obsessively, documented, and even writers describing diner culture at its zenith sometimes seemed to approach the topic with a kind of reverence bordering on wistfulness—as if they somehow knew this weird and wonderful food-based dialect couldn’t last. In 1936 Harold Bentley boasted that foreign tourists were more impressed by soda fountains and their lingo than by landmarks like the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, but lamented that, his own soda-jerk glossary notwithstanding, “current encyclopedias give very meager information on the subject and give no space to illustrations.” 

He needn’t have worried so much. Beginning in 1939, the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project, which employed writers like Saul Bellow, John Cheever, and Zora Neale Hurston during the Great Depression, dispatched its scribes to record “New York Soda–Luncheonette Slang and Jargon” as part of America Eats!, a never-finished guide to ethnic, regional, and local culinary traditions already threatened by the growth of industrial foods. Other linguists and anthropologists undertook similar efforts in their own cities and towns, and diner lingo seeped into the dialogue of countless movies, plays, and TV shows.

There is, on the one hand, something heartbreakingly sweet about all this: At a time when much of the world would’ve argued that the United States had no gastronomic creativity, many Americans proudly recognized that we had in fact developed a distinct national cuisine that was unfussy, local, affordable, and—perhaps most important—fun. It’s no wonder, then, that even a century later, diners and the languages spoken there tend to inspire cultish devotion.

But because nostalgia is too easily manipulated to embolden intolerance, it’s worth remembering what else we said farewell to at the end of the much-yearned-for era in which American food was seasonal, local, and homemade. In diner parlance, a small chocolate soda was a “midget from Harlem,” ham and potatoes was “Noah’s boy with Murphy carrying a wreath,” two pork chops were “a couple of Hebrew enemies,” a “virgin coke” was a Coca-Cola with cherry, and “fix the pumps” meant “see the girl with the large breasts.” For some Americans, lunch counters may have been welcoming havens for food and linguistic spectacle; for others, including the four black college students who sparked a national movement by daring to take a seat at a Woolworth’s in Greensboro, they’d always been strictly off-limits.

I don’t mean to suggest that anyone who gets a kick out of the phrase “hold the hail” (for no ice) or pines for the days of 10-cent coffee is a bigot—only that the owners and managers of chain stores might have had sound reasons for asking their staff to cut back on the old-style slang. Or for wanting to distance themselves from the luncheonette tradition altogether.

Diner slang is dead—may it rest, finally, in peace.