Two chicks on a raft - wreck 'em, shingle with a shimmy and a shake in the alley, Zeppelins in a fog, city juice 86 the hail, drag one through Georgia and sweep the kitchen floor!
The words are obviously English so it can't be a foreign language. Nor is it a couple of spies greeting each other with a pre-arranged code. It's an example of what you might have heard a waiter shouting to a cook in an American diner, luncheonette, or cafeteria before fast food restaurants changed the way that Americans eat out. American diner slang could have been heard in any cheap eatery across the US at one time, but sadly is now a dying language thanks largely to the customer service standards of large restaurant corporations and their ubiquity in the business of eating out on the cheap. Oh, and the translation for the above is 'Scrambled eggs on toast, a side order of toast with butter and jam, sausages and mash, a glass of water with no ice, Coca-Cola with chocolate syrup, and an order of hash'.
Where and Why Did it Start?
Like most forms of slang, the origins of diner slang are lost in the mists of time. It is known to have been mentioned in a Detroit newspaper in the 1850s, and is believed to have been in common usage by black waiters in the 1870s and 1880s. Its heyday though was from the 1920s until the 1970s.
Although most of the terms used in diner lingo are shorter than the original and therefore meant to speed things up, it's different from many other types of slang in that the slang term is often the same length or even longer than the word or phrase it replaces. Here are some examples:
- Dough well done with cow to cover - buttered toast.
- Shingle with a shimmy and a shake - buttered toast with jam.
- Customer will take a chance - hash.
While it's likely that a lot of these terms were invented just for the fun of it and to lighten the burden of a difficult and sometimes frustrating job, there is a good reason for some of them. At busy times a diner is a particularly noisy place, especially in the kitchen, and although most waiters and waitresses write down their orders, they will often shout them to the cook as they pin up the order. In such a noisy environment, 'white bread' can sound very much like 'rye bread', so rye becomes 'whiskey'1, and rye toast becomes 'whiskey down'2.
A number of diner slang terms have already passed into everyday use, such as 'mayo' for mayonnaise, 'BLT' for a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, and both 'stack' and 'short stack' for an order of pancakes.
- Adam and Eve on a raft/log - Two poached eggs on toast
- Adam's ale/city juice/dog soup - Water
- Axle grease/skid grease/cow paste - Butter
- Baby juice/moo juice/cow juice/sweet Alice - Milk
- Bailed hay - Shredded Wheat
- Belch water/balloon water - Seltzer or soda water
- Birdseed - Breakfast cereal
- Blonde with Sand - Coffee with cream and sugar.
- Blowout patches - Pancakes
- Blue plate special - A dish of meat, potato and one vegetable served on a plate (usually blue) which has three sections.
- Bossy in a bowl - Beef stew3
- Bowl of red - Chili con carne
- Bow-wow/bun pup/tube steak/Coney Island - A hot dog
- Breath - Onion
- Bronx vanilla/halitosis/Italian perfume - Garlic
- Bucket of cold mud - A bowl of chocolate ice cream
- Bullets/whistleberries - Baked beans4
- Burn one - Put a hamburger on the grill
- Burn one, take it through the garden and pin a rose on it - Hamburger with lettuce, tomato and onion
- Burn the British - Toasted English muffin
- Chicks on a raft - Eggs on toast
- Cow feed - Salad
- Cowboy/western - A western omelette5
- Crowd - Three of anything6
- Customer will take a chance/clean up the kitchen/sweep the floor - Hash7
- Deadeye - A poached egg
- Dog biscuit - A cracker
- Dog and maggot - Cracker and cheese
- Dough well done with cow to cover - Buttered toast
- Drag one through Georgia - Cola with chocolate syrup8
- Draw one/a cup of mud - A cup of coffee
- Draw one in the dark - A cup of black coffee
- Eighty-six - To remove an item from an order or from the menu
- Eve with a lid on - Apple pie9
- Eve with a mouldy lid - Apple pie with a slice of cheese
- Fifty-five - A glass of root beer
- First Lady - An order of spare ribs10
- Fish eyes/cat's eyes - Tapioca pudding
- Flop two - Two fried eggs over easy
- Fly cake/roach cake - Raisin cake or huckleberry pie
- Frenchman's delight - Pea soup
- Frog sticks - French fries
- Go for a walk/on wheels - An order to go, a takeaway
- Gravel train - Sugar bowl
- Graveyard stew - Milk toast11
- Hail - Ice
- High and dry - A sandwich without butter, mayonnaise, or dressing
- Hockey puck - A hamburger, well done
- Houseboat - A banana split
- Ice the rice - Rice pudding with ice cream.
- In the alley - Served as a side dish
- Irish turkey - Corned beef and cabbage
- Java/Joe - Coffee
- Keep off the grass - No lettuce
- Life preservers - Doughnuts
- Looseners - Prunes12
- Lumber - A toothpick
- Maiden's delight - Cherries13
- Mike and Ike/the twins - Salt and pepper shakers
- Murphy - Potatoes14
- Mystery in the alley - A side order of hash
- Nervous pudding - Jelly/Jello
- Noah's boy - Ham15
- On the hoof - Any kind of meat cooked rare
- Paint it red - Put ketchup on an item
- Pair of drawers - Two cups of coffee
- Pigs in a blanket - A ham (sometimes a sausage) sandwich
- Pin a rose on it - Add onion to an order
- Pittsburgh - To toast or burn something16
- Put out the lights and cry - Liver and onions17
- Radar range - Microwave oven
- Sand/yum-yum - Sugar
- Sea dust - salt
- Sh*t on a shingle/SOS - Minced beef with gravy on toast
- Shoot one from the south - A strong cola18
- Sinkers and suds - Doughnuts and coffee
- Shingle with a shimmy and a shake - Buttered toast with jam19
- Spot with a twist - A cup of tea with lemon.
- Squeeze one - A glass of orange juice
- Two cows, make them cry - Two hamburgers with onions
- Vermont - Maple syrup20
- Warts - Olives
- Wax - American cheese
- Whiskey down - Toasted rye bread
- Wreck 'em - Scramble the eggs
- Zeppelins in a fog - Sausages and mash
This is one of the most contentious of diner slang terms as there seem to be more stories concerning its origin than just about any other and particularly as it is one more term which has passed into everyday language21, and has been included in the lyrics of the song 'Eggs and Sausage' written by Tom Waits, who is himself known to have been a frequent customer at Ben Frank's - a famous Los Angeles diner which closed during the 1990s and has since re-opened as part of a retro-diner chain (see below), and which is itself mentioned in another of his songs - 'The One That Got Away'.
Article 86 of the New York State Liquor Code
Which defines the circumstances in which a bar patron should be refused alcohol, or '86ed'.
The Soup Kitchen Theory
During the depression of the 1930s, soup kitchens would often make just enough soup for 85 people. If you were next in line after number 85, you were '86ed'.
The Eight Feet By Six Feet Theory
A coffin is usually eight feet long and is buried six feet under. Once in your coffin you've been 'eight by sixed', which shortens to '86ed'.
The Soda Fountain Theory
Workers at soda fountains had their own jargon which was based on numbers22 and it's possible that eighty-six was the number they used when an item was out of stock.
The Delmonico's Theory
Ribeye steak used to be number 86 on the menu of this famous New York City restaurant and because it's their signature dish is also commonly known as 'Delmonico steak'. It's thought that the popularity of this menu item was such that it ran out on enough occasions for '86' to become a term meaning 'off the menu'.
The British Merchant Marine Theory
A standard British merchant ship would often carry 85 sailors. Number 86 would be left off the ship.
What About the Word 'Diner'?
Some of the original restaurants of this type were converted from disused railway dining cars - indeed, Webster's Dictionary defines a diner as 'a restaurant in the shape of a railroad car'. 'Dining car' was shortened to 'diner' and an American classic was born. Most of the well known diners of the 1930s, '40s, and '50s such as The Empire Diner in New York City, with their Art Deco appearance and gleaming chrome or stainless steel fittings were prefabricated by various diner manufacturers and then transported, rather than built on site.
Is There a Future For Diner Lingo?
Probably not. Old style diners are steadily being replaced by fast food chains, each of whom have a very strict and regimented menu which contains many of their brand name and flagship items, such as the Burger King Whopper or the McDonald's Big Mac. Any employee at the register who shouted 'Burn one, 86 the breath, add frog sticks, and put wheels on it!' to the kitchen probably wouldn't have much of a career there.
There are still many diners and cafeterias across the US where this kind of slang can be heard, but even there it's dying out as older cooks and waiters/waitresses are replaced by students who are just looking for a way to pay their way through college.
One place where it may be kept alive is in the growing business of retro style diners. These are springing up all over the US and in Britain, too, on the wave of a nostalgia boom, and mimic the classic diners described above.