Issue 4 |

The Delicious Guide to Diner Lingo

by on September 1, 2015

Introduction

Growing up in New York City, I have always been surrounded by diners that serve up homemade meals. Whenever I am ordering off of a diner menu, it always seems to take longer than usual, because of the myriad of choices that can take up several pages. There are many ways to prepare sandwiches, eggs, and coffee, amongst other things, and the sheer number of individual orders that need to be carried out can confuse the waiters, waitresses, and cooks who have to memorise hundreds of food combinations.

For many years during the 19th and 20th centuries, diner employees and short-order cooks all across the United States of America, would come up with idioms known as “diner lingo” for these orders in order to speed up production. The colourful jargon had made its way into the American English lexicon in the late 19th to mid 20th century, but only a few terms are currently in use. Diner lingo may soon meet its inevitable end because the number of people who speak it has declined. Fortunately, historians have been able to preserve diner lingo, for nostalgic purposes and to teach future generations how Americans once communicated. Well anyway, may I take your order now?

Menu

Can I start you off with something to drink? Here is what we offer:

Diner LingoWhat It Means
Cup o' ’JoeCoffee
Moo JuiceMilk
Hug ‘emOrange Juice

We also serve breakfast 24 hours a day:

Diner LingoWhat It Means
A RaftToast
Wreck 'emScrambled Eggs
RollerSausage Link

If you already had breakfast, or just want to get a head start on lunch, here are our specials:

Diner LingoWhat It Means
Frog SticksFrench Fries
Yellow Blanket on a Dead CowCheeseburger
Hounds on an IslandFranks and Beans

We have all the necessary condiments to satisfy your meal:

Diner LingoWhat It Means
Yellow PaintMustard
HemorrhageKetchup
Axle GreaseButter

And I hope you saved some room for dessert:

Diner LingoWhat it Means
Nervous PuddingJello
MagooCustard Pie
Sleigh Ride SpecialVanilla Pudding

Extravagant orders

Now we put some of these above terms and more to the test. To all of you reading this article, the following sentences in this section may sound like something out of a Lewis Carroll novel; but in a diner, luncheonette or cafeteria, these statements would have been normal. This first group of sentences are actual combinations that were popular in the United States:

Diner LingoWhat it Means
Burn one, take it through the garden and pin a rose on it Hamburger with lettuce (garden), tomato and onion (rose)
Burn the British, and draw one in the darkToasted English Muffin (Burn the British) with black coffee (Draw ... dark)
Noah's boy with Murphy carrying a wreathHam (Noah's Boy) and potatoes (Murphy) with cabbage (wreath)

But of course, many orders can be made up by combining random diner lingo idioms to represent all types of dishes. The following orders have been made up by yours truly. Try these dishes in your own kitchen:

Diner LingoWhat it Means
Making two cows cry by dragging them to WisconsinTwo cheeseburgers (cows / Wisconsin) with onions (cry)
Leaving Dolly Parton high and dryTwo chicken breasts (D.P.) without condiments (high and dry)
Pope Benedict, meet Mike and IkeEggs Benedict (P.B) doused with salt and pepper (Mike and Ike)
Wax pistol in PittsburghSmoked (Pittsburgh) pastrami sandwich (pistol) with American cheese (wax)
Hamlet's problem with his wartsDanish with two poached eggs in hot sauce (HP), topped with olives (warts)

Now that we have run the gamut of the types of diner lingo, I will discuss the origins behind certain idioms. Most terms have little to no recorded history, but these precious few give us an idea of how diner lingo has evolved.

Lingo #1: Adam and Eve on a Raft and related terms

Our first diner lingo idiom comes from the 1890s. “Adam and Eve on a raft”, which means ‘two eggs on toast’, was first seen in the 1894 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary with the following example:

“One day he ordered poached eggs on toast. Going to the slide the waiter yelled out: ‘Adam and Eve on a raft.’ The order was changed to scrambled eggs, when the waiter rushed off, and in stentorian tones there came the alarming direction to those below: ‘Shipwreck that order!’

At a particular diner in the Bowery section of Manhattan, diner employees came up with their own diner slang. This excerpt came from the Atlanta Constitution newspaper in an article entitled, “Story of a Queer Café in New York” from 1899:

“An order for eggs on toast went to the kitchen as, “Adam and Eve on a raft,” but if after giving this order the customer wanted the eggs plain, the countermand went out as, ‘Save Adam and Eve; sink the raft’”.

Another variant on the lingo was documented in a 1936 article in The New York Times entitled, “Lexicon of the Soda Jerker”:

“Expressions used throughout America include…“Adam and Eve on a raft—and wreck ‘em” for scrambled eggs on toast”.

The “Adam and Eve” theme is no stranger to diner lingo. If someone wanted to order a stack of ribs, the waiters would yell out to the cooks, “Give us a First Lady”. They did not mean bring out the wife of the President, but were referring to the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib, making her the first lady on Earth. When dessert came around and a customer wanted an apple pie, the order coming to the kitchen would be “Eve with a lid on it”. This originates from knowledge that the apple is the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, and “lid” refers to the crust covering the apple. Finally, “Adam’s Ale” which simply means ‘water’, obviously stems from the idea that it was the only drinking liquid available on Earth at the time.

Lingo #2: Eighty-six

The next lingo has nothing to do with the preparation of food or drink, but the actions in dealing with rowdy patrons or the lack of ingredients in the kitchen. When you “eighty-six” something or someone, you get rid of it. It could also mean to refuse service to a customer, or saying that the order cannot be fulfilled. The term has the most complex history out of all the diner lingos, dating back to the 1930s, because there are so many theories as to its origin.

The Oxford English Dictionary, defines “eighty-six” in the context of refusing service to the rudest or most drunk of all customers. It alludes to the story of actor John Barrymore, a notorious drunk whom the establishments did not want to deal with:

“There was a bar in the Belasco building … but Barrymore was known in that cubby as an ‘eighty-six’. An ‘eighty-six’, in the patois of western dispensers, means: ‘Don’t serve him.'”

Another take on the term “eighty-six” came from the famous journalist Walter Winchell, whose column ‘Glossary of Soda-Fountain Lingo’, defined it as “we’re all out of it”. The most probable story is that in the New York State liquor code, Article 86 is the section dealing with the removal of problem customers. Other theories about “eighty-six” vary from the Army Code #86 that details when a soldier is AWOL or “Absent Without Leave”, to certain dining halls only allowing 85 customers at one time, denying the 86th person entry. Whatever the true story may be, “eighty-six” has gone beyond the world of diner lingo into American slang of the late 20th to early 21st century.

Regional lingos
(SCROD/SHROD and Mexican-themed diners)

Some dining terms are exclusive to certain regions of the United States. For instance, in Boston, the fish of the day is known as a “SCROD” or “SHROD” in diner lingo. It comes from the acronym that stands for “Small Cod or Haddock Remaining on Deck”, but in essence refers to all types of fish in the sea. The term dates back to 1841, where its original definition is:

“A young or small cod fish, split and salted for cooking.”

By 1884 when diners were already in full swing, the meaning grew to include its impact on the public:

“Throughout all Eastern Massachusetts… it seems to refer to these small fish slightly corned, in which condition they are a favorite article of food, but the name is also transferred to the young fish themselves.”

Even though the use of diner lingo declined in the mid 20th century, “SCROD” is still a common term in a lot of the restaurants of New England and more recently New York, where it featured in a 1975 article about the art of diner lingo:

“The Penobscot Exchange Hotel always meticulously stated on its restaurant menu just which fish was being offered each day as SCROD.”

Meanwhile, in the opposite corner of the United States in the Arizona/New Mexico region alongside Route 66, diners would serve Mexican food to cater to its mainly Hispanic population. Waiters and cooks in those dining establishments coined their own shorthand code for their own Spanish cuisine. Some of their basic dishes and their lingo counterparts include:

Diner LingoWhat it Means 
Cluck and WrapChicken Enchiladas
Moo and WrapBeef Enchiladas
Stampede BlanketLarge Bean and Beef Burrito

And then there are the condiments that come with the above dishes:

Diner LingoWhat it Means
Con LumbreAdd Hot Sauce
Top it with WhiteAdd Sour Cream
Top it with RedAdd Salsa
Sour itAdd Lemon

Depending on the region, there are other names for dishes that include the names of locales.

It is unclear if these terms are exclusive to those regions or widespread around the country:

Diner LingoWhat it Means
Bronx (NY) VanillaGarlic
Hoboken (NJ) SpecialPineapple Soda and Chocolate Ice Cream
Chicago (IL) SpecialSteamed Hot Dog with Relish (Sauerkraut)
C.J. Boston (MA)Cream Cheese and Jelly

Future of diner lingo

As the 20th century progressed, diners began to close down due to the increasing number of chain food and beverage outlets such as McDonalds and Starbucks. In addition, instead of the waiters physically communicating with cooks, automated systems for ordering took over, thus eliminating almost all of back-and-forth human exchange. Only a few diner lingo terms like B.L.T. (bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich) and mayo (mayonnaise) still find themselves on mainstream menus of all types around the USA. People of the last couple of generations would be more likely to associate the term “Quarter Pounder with Cheese” with a cheeseburger, as opposed to “Dragging one through Wisconsin”, or “Frappuccino” for coffee instead of “Cup o’ Joe”. Today, diners are operated like fancy restaurants, with high-end cuisine at expensive prices. However, diner lingo still exists, but barely, and only in retro-style diner themed restaurants that reach out to a select group of patrons. If more of the old-fashioned diners open up again, diner lingo could be resurrected and saved from being a dead style of communication and hopefully hark back to the symbol of Americana that it once represented.


Appendix: More Diner Lingo Terms

Diner LingoWhat it Means
Heart Attack on a RackBiscuits and Gravy
Life PreserversDoughnuts
Zeppelins in a FogSausages in Mashed Potatoes
Bossy in a BowlBeef Stew
Maiden's DelightCherries
Foreign EntanglementsSpaghetti
Frenchman's DelightPea Soup
HopeOatmeal
M.D.Dr. Pepper
Family ReunionChicken and Egg Sandwich
CheckerboardWaffle
Corrugated RoofLemon Meringue Pie
Fish EyesTapioca Pudding
Boiled LeavesTea
Butcher's RevengeMeat Loaf


References

http://www.dinerlingo.com/

http://www.jitterbuzz.com/diners.html

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