Diner lingo is becoming a thing of the past but there are still diners where the servers use this colorful language to call out orders. Not all of this language originated in diners, though. Some if it came from the old soda fountain and lunch-counters. Some diners have their own peculiar slang, but there are some age-old gems that have been passed down. If you’ve ever heard a counter-person calling out orders using this slang, you may have thought you were listening to a complicated insider’s code that only the inner circle of diner-world can understand. But the language handed down from the soda fountains and lunch counters to the modern diner originally served a purpose. Although some of the terms may have originated as early as the 1870’s, with the soda jerks, they had their heyday between the 1920’s and 1970’s.
You would think that the intention of such a language is to create a short-hand so that longer orders can be called out in a brief verbal barrage rather than a long and complicated patter. This is usually the case. Mayois certainly shorter than mayonnaise and BLT is a lot easier than saying bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. These terms are so useful they have passed into our everyday language. However, many times, the expression used is much longer than what is really necessary to convey the customer’s order to the back of the house, but this is part of the fun. Dough well-done with a cow to cover is a bit verbose compared to buttered toast. But these more complex expressions probably had more to do with being creative, having fun, and one-upping the other counter-person or waiter than with being efficient.
Regardless, the main purpose of such slang was so that the cook could distinguish orders from the hubbub of conversation going on in a busy establishment. In the early days, the cook may not have been able to read and write, so it was not possible to present orders written down on checks.
The Varsity Drive-In of Atlanta, GA calls this a “Yankee Dog” because, of course, Yankees have a yellow streak. 1
Much of the lingo is self-deprecating humor, but humor with a purpose. And by the way back of the house is diner slang for the kitchen. The expressions are actually very simple and easy to understand. You’ll notice that many of the expressions are biblical. Here are some of the basics, several of which you will recognize since they have come into common usage.
Despite the practicality of this invented language, there is no doubt that much of the more original slang was simply a way to be more clever than the other guy, in an attempt to gain attention. Obviously calling something by revolting names such as blood or hemorrhage, both names for ketchup, was born of absolutely no regard for the appetites of the customers! Yet there is always some insider language at any establishment, and much of it has to do with references to the quality of the food or the cleanliness of the establishment. These kinds of clever, and not-so-well hidden references served to reinforce the camaraderie between the employees.
Although you may never have heard most of these old terms, you probably already use some of the slang in your every day life. Much of the terminology has become a part of the way we order at restaurants. We all know to say mayo for mayonnaise. If we don’t want the mayo we know to say hold the mayo. We also know that we can extend this to anything we do not want, such as hold the onions. When you want a burger with everything on it (‘all the fixins’ is diner slang as well) you might say burger with the works. And when you say you want your eggs over easy you are talking the short-order cook’s language. If you order any of this to go, it is walking, as in “Grilled cheese walking!” to mean a grilled cheese ordered to go. For more diner lingo, see Hash House Lingo by Jack Smiley. 2
True hot dog connoisseurs know how to order a hot dog with true expertise, which may vary depending on location. A hot dog with the works might be with mustard, relish, and onions. But what about a loaded hotdog? Well that might mean the works plus ketchup.
- 40-weight: Coffee (the expression refers to motor oil)
- Adam and Eve: Poached eggs.
- Adam and Eve on a Raft: Poached eggs on toast.
- Adam and Eve on a Rafts an’ wreck em: break the yolks or scramble the eggs.
- Adam and Eve on a Log: Poached eggs and a sausage link.
- Atlanta special: Coca Cola
- Axle grease: margarine, oleo
- Bad breath: onions
- Burn the British: A toasted English muffin.
- Eve with a Lid on: Apple Pie
- Georgia: Coca Cola
- Noah’s Boy: ham
- On the hoof: rare
- Red bow-wow:
- Sinker: Doughnut.
- Sweep up the Kitchen: hash
- Yesterday, today, and tomorrow: hash
- with wheels: to go
Words for Toast
Words for Coffee
- belly warmer
- mud (also chocolate syrup)
- draw one
- jamoka, jamoch
Words for Water
- city juice
- sky juice
- Adam’s Ale
- dog soup
- city gin
Words for Milk
- moo juice
Soda Fountain Lingo
Much of the diner lingo, we are aware, started with the soda fountains, where clerks were not only as creative as the front-of-the-house staff of diners, but were often just as busy. Some of the original lingo meant something slightly different than what it came to mean in the diner, however. For instance, the phrase, “draw one,” in a diner, means coffee. In the soda fountain it originally meant hot chocolate.
Referring to black coffee as “mud” often happened in diners, but at the soda fountain, it started out referring to chocolate ice cream, or chocolate shakes. Called milk “cow juice” also started at the fountain, and survived to diner times. There was also lots of different lingo for eggs, although you might think eggs are the province of diners, not soda fountains. However, there was a time, in the late 1800’s and beyond, when adding eggs to soda fountain drinks like shakes and malted, was common practice. In fact, there were hundreds of special egg drinks in soda fountain formulates. When calling for a chocolate malted with an egg, a soda clerk might call out “Twist it, choke it, and make it cackle!” A “chocolate peep” was a chocolate egg and milk drink, peep being a term for a baby chicken.
The Blue Plate Special
Something you will still see at some roadside diners is a notice announcing the Blue Plate Special for the day. This refers to a large, inexpensive plated lunch or dinner with generous servings and usually a main dish with meat, three or four vegetables, bread, and a drink. Today’s Blue Plate Specials will probably be served on standard white restaurant plates, but the ‘blue’ at one time, referred to an actual plate, which was a thick China plate done in the very popular Blue China pattern with compartments to separate the main dish from the sides. This dish was called a grill plate and it was used so often it came to by synonymous with the large and cheap diner meal. This pattern was produced by pretty much any China company around. The patterns on the plates may not have been exactly the same, but they all were based on the same “blue willow” motif. You may see solid blue divided plates being referenced as “blue plate special” plates, but this is not historically accurate.
Some diners today will serve their Blue Plate Special on a sold blue colored divided plate, or at least a plate with blue on it, presumably in an effort to be retro or historically accurate. (Additional sources: 3 4)
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- Stern, Jane, and Michael Stern. Roadfood: The Coast-to-coast Guide to 700 of the Best Barbecue Joints, Lobster Shacks, Ice Cream Parlors, Highway Diners, and Much, Much More. New York: Broadway, 2008.
- Smiley, Jack, and Paul Dickson. Hash House Lingo: The Slang of Soda Jerks, Short-order Cooks, Bartenders, Waitresses, Carhops and Other Denizens of Yesterday’s Roadside. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2012.
- Stern, Jane, and Michael Stern. The Lexicon of Real American Food. Guilford, CT: Lyons, 2011
- Cotter, Colleen. USA Phrasebook. Hawthorn, Victoria: Lonely Planet, 2001.