ANYONE WHO EVER ORDERED a BLT or “two sunny side up” in any American diner, dinette, grill, or Luncheonette between 1920 and the 1960s unwittingly participated in a distinctive American folklore phenomenon originated by short-order cooks, waiters, waitresses, and soda jerks called “culinary slanguistics.”
Diner and lunch counter slanguistics fall under a peculiar category of mnemonic folk speech that emerged from pre-depression-era New York, Los Angeles, and areas in the Deep South. Patrons of such bygone establishments as well may have heard their order translated into sometimes undecipherable dialectical jargon designed by the more established workers to short-cut and unmistakably communicate the ordering and preparation process. Jan Harold Brunvand’s “Study of American Folklore” explains that almost exclusively, the lore collected from this group falls under the general category of folk speech, a sub-category of dialect vocabulary.
The term “lunch counter” first evolved in the United States around 1869, then grew widely into “luncheonette” in the 1930s. While many jargon terms for the distinctive fast, cheap and simple fare served emerged from urban ethnic roots that today might be considered politically incorrect (such as from Black and Jewish eateries), others were more commonly linked to geographical locations, certain meals, methods of preparation or even in some cases, digestive reactions.
For example, seltzer water became “belch water.” Baked beans became “whistle berries” or “Saturday nights” because of the flatulence they supposedly caused. A dish of prunes on the side would have been “looseners in the alley.”
Some of the more creative terms were reserved for breakfast items. A western omelet became a “cowboy.” “Dough well done with cow to cover” was buttered toast, as was “raft with axle grease.”
“Adam and Eve on a raft” was two fried (or poached) eggs on toast, with the term “wreck ‘em” added to denote the eggs as scrambled. A side order of pancakes became a “short stack,” and “dust the roof” indicated a sprinkling of powdered sugar. “Add Vermont” was to include syrup. “Birdseed with moo juice” was a bowl of cereal with milk. “Burn the British” was a toasted English muffin.
Lunch items established another vocabulary of jargon, or “folk speech” terms. The “blue plate special” was a serving of meat, a potato, and vegetable served on a typically blue plate sectioned in three parts. A “bowwow (or a bunpup) with breath and hemorrhage” was a hot dog with onions and ketchup. “Burn one” or a “hockey puck” was a well-done hamburger, and “clean up the kitchen” or “gentleman will take a chance” denoted a bowl of hash.
Dinner menu items may have included a “first lady,” which were spareribs named for a pun on Eve’s creation from Adam’s spare rib. Two pork chops were called “Hebrew enemies.” “Zeppelins in a fog” was sausages in mashed potatoes. Beef stew was called “bossy in a bowl,” and “beef on the hoof” was a steak cooked rare.
For dessert, one could order “Eve with a lid on,” which was apple pie; a “houseboat,” or a banana split; a bowl of “China,” or rice pudding; or a “midget from Harlem,” which was a small chocolate soda.
Drug Store soda jerks (sometimes called “licensed fizzicians”) frequently used these slanguistics for dispensing fountain drinks. “Shoot one, shoot one from the South” referred to shooting Coca-Cola syrup into a glass then mixing just a little carbonated water to make it stronger than prescribed. “Shoot one in the red” meant to add a shot of cherry flavor. “Shoot a pair and spike it” was a Coke with two lemon shots. “A shot in the arm” was a glass of Coca-Cola so strong “it can walk.”
Many Coca-Cola-related terms such as “shot in the arm” originated from the days of its association with cocaine. Roy Stannard Baker wrote in his 1908 book “Following the Color Line” that, in his opinion, the term “dope” became a substitute for Coca-Cola due to the “confusion of the abbreviation for cocaine … That coke was [originally] an abbreviation for cocaine in Atlanta, Georgia.” In the Deep South, for example, soda shops were even sometimes called “dope shops.”
Some less ominous soda jerk Coca-Cola jargon originated from dispenser location. “Coke to the left” signified lemon flavor which was dispensed from the left side of the machine, and “to the right” signified cherry flavor.
Most of the terms are the result of familiar wordplay based on association, such as “patch” for strawberry ice cream. Descriptions of some physical characteristics of the food or its container give rise to another label, such as a “bucket of mud” for a dish of chocolate ice cream.
Columbia University Professor Harold Bentley in the 1936 Journal “American Speech” offered an additional group of slanguistic terms he discovered which he characterized as the “insider signal system.” These terms can be separated into two subcategories — terms to warn the workers that the boss is coming, and those to call attention to certain customers or unusual events.
An example of the former includes “White bread” or “13,” indicating the manager or owner was close by. Examples of the latter include “eighty-seven and a half” (attractive female customer); “fix the pumps” (woman with large breasts); “George Eddy” (a man who does not tip) and “95” (a customer who tries to leave without paying).
So, on the next breakfast out, try ordering “two on a raft and wreck ’em, a short stack, dust the roof, looseners in the alley, moo juice and burn the British.” Don’t be a George Eddy, and be on the lookout for an eighty-seven and a half.