Beyond Words - Language Blog

A Cup o’ Joe and a Heart Attack on a Rack, Please – The Delicious History of American Diner Lingo

Along with Uncle Sam, Civil War daguerreotypes, and hot apple pies on Thanksgiving, diners are one of those nostalgia-inducing cultural artifacts that somehow get under the skin of millennials and baby boomers alike. Diners have long been a quintessential element of Americana, but along with bottomless coffee and the time-honored tradition of dipping French fries in milkshakes (if you’re thinking I’m alone on that one, look it up – it’s real and delicious), diners have left us with an enduring linguistic legacy. A cup o’ Joe, ‘sunny side up’ or ‘over easy’ eggs, a burger ‘with the works’ or a ‘BLT’ – if you’ve ever used any of these terms, you’ve officially borrowed from the lexicon of American diner lingo.

A Brief History of the Diner

The precursor to the first diner was a horse-drawn wagon used to sell food to employees of the Providence Journal in Providence, Rhode Island. It was built in 1872 by Walter Scott and was so successful that, fifteen years later, ‘lunch wagons’ began to be commercially produced. As their popularity grew, wagons gave way to pre-fabricated buildings. Because they were delivered onsite with only the utilities needing to be connected, they tended to be small and narrow enough to fit onto a rail car or truck, giving them their distinctive train-car style shape. And being small and narrow meant that they were relatively cheap to buy and operate. This, combined with a traditionally affordable menu, meant that when the Great Depression struck in 1929, the diner industry was not hit as hard as higher end sectors of the restaurant business. So, after World War II, when the economy started to boom, diners began to spread from the Northeast all over the country.

The Menu

With robust menus that often boasted more than one hundred items, as well as dozens of different ways to prepare basic items like hamburgers and eggs, the early nineteen-hundreds saw the advent of diner lingo, a colorful system used by cook and wait staff to help them remember customer orders.
Although there were certain regional variations to diner lingo, it stayed relatively similar across the board, and at the height of diner popularity, being an expert in the lexicon became a common prerequisite for waiters and cooks applying for jobs. A lot of the terms were tongue-in-cheek, and occasionally even veered into racy territory – let’s take a look at a classic menu.

Can I get you started off with something to drink?

Here you go, two jamokas and a cup of city juice. Are you ready for me to take your order?

And what kind of condiments would you like?

Now I really hope you saved room for dessert…

At the height of diner popularity, hearing the wait staff call out your order to the cooks was as much a part of the experience as choosing your favorite song on the juke box or slurping down a malt milkshake. And the amazing thing about diner lingo is the way it started to develop its own grammar in order to accommodate complex orders. While lettuce on its own was called ‘rabbit food’ and onions were called ‘bad breath,’ a well-done burger with lettuce, tomato, and onion, wasn’t referred to as ‘a hockey puck with rabbit food and bad breath on top.’ That would have been even more confusing than the original order. Instead, staff came up with all kinds of creative ways to make an order memorable. Let’s look at a few:

Biblical References

Now that we’ve run through the basic gauntlet of diner lingo, let’s take a closer look at one of the strange phenomena that seems to characterize the lexicon: biblical references. You may have noticed that quite a few diner idioms make references to biblical characters, such as Adam, Eve, and Noah. Though nobody knows the exact origin of these idioms, they started to be catalogued as far back as 1894, when the North Eastern Daily Gazette explained the common diner term ‘Adam and Eve on a raft,’ using 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!’”

Eve probably found more representation in diner lingo than any other individual character. An order for a stack of ribs would be called out as, ‘give me a First Lady,’ obviously in reference to the idea that Eve – the first lady on Earth – was made from Adam’s rib; apple pie was called ‘Eve with a lid on it’ in reference to the Biblical story in which Eve eats an apple from the garden of Eden. Similarly, ‘Adam’s Ale’ refers to water, since Adam was not believed to have ever consumed any kind of alcohol.

And though we don’t know the exact origin of the majority of diner vocabulary, historians have worked out a few theories regarding two of the most enduring and universal terms: Cup o’ Joe, and Eighty-Six.

Cup o’ Joe

There are three prevalent theories regarding how diners most popular beverage – coffee – earned the nickname, ‘a cup o’ Joe.’

The first suggests that the term arose in 1913, when Josephus Daniels was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson. Secretary Joe issued an order that prohibited the consumption of alcohol aboard naval vessels. From then on, coffee was the strongest drink allowed on board, and, in lieu of asking for ‘a cup o’ whiskey,’ or ‘a cup o’ brandy’ in the mess hall, begrudged sailors took to asking for ‘a cup o’ Joe.’

Though this theory seems convincing, the first recorded use of the term ‘cup o’ Joe’ wasn’t until 1930, sixteen years after the issuance of that order, which leads historians to believe that a second theory lends itself to a more probable origin story. The second theory actually leans on extant terminology from the diner lexicon, suggesting that ‘Joe’ is a shortened version of two other previously existing nicknames for coffee: Java and mocha, which, by the way, already existed in a third slang word for coffee listed in the menu above, Jamoka.

The third theory also borrows from antecedents in the English lexicon. As far back as 1846, the name Joe was used as a neutral signifier of the common man, much as Jane Doe and John Doe are used today. Thus, a cup o’ Joe may have just been a way of denoting the common man’s drink.

Eighty-six

If you’ve ever worked in a bar or restaurant, you’ve probably heard the term eighty-six being used either to instruct kitchen staff to ‘hold’ an item that was part of an original order (‘eighty-six that side of bacon’), to explain that the restaurant’s run out of an item (‘the tomatoes are eighty-sixed’), or even as a code to remove problem customers (‘eighty-six the guy at the bar, he’s too drunk’). Like ‘a cup o’ Joe,’ there are a number of theories about the origin of this number turned verb.

The first few theories all connect the term with official codes and rules of the era. Article 86 of the New York State liquor code, for example, deals with the removal of problem customers. Similarly, Army Code 86 deals with soldiers gone AWOL or ‘Absent Without Leave,’ and, according to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1926, Device Number 86 was a ‘lock out’ device, which turned off a problematic piece of electrical equipment so that it could not be turned back on until reset. The number could have also referred to capacity limits of dining halls frequently being set at eighty-five, so that the eighty-sixth customer would be denied entry.

Another theory, written about in the Merriam Webster Dictionary, suggests that the term may have become popular as a code word simply because it rhymed with the word ‘nix,’ meaning ‘no’ or ‘to prohibit.’ The word ‘nix’ comes from the German word ‘nichts,’ which means ‘nothing.’

A more colorful theory suggests that the term originated in Chumley’s, an old bar located at 86 Bedford Street in Manhattan’s West Village. During prohibition, the theory goes, police would call the bar before a raid and tell the bartender to ‘eighty-six’ his customers, meaning send them out the 86 Bedford Street door, while the police went in at the Barrow Street entrance.

The End of Diner Lingo?

In the 1970’s, with the growth of fast food companies like McDonald’s and KFC, diners, along with the renowned diner lexicon, began to fall into decline. Today, diners remain popular in just a few parts of the Northeast and the Midwest. In other parts of the country, modern high-end brunch and breakfast restaurants draw inspiration from the vintage diner aesthetic and built menus filled with contemporary interpretations of classic American diner fare, like kimchi grilled cheese sandwiches and crab cake benedicts with wasabi dill sauce. Sadly, American diner lingo has all but disappeared. But as we develop new food-related lexicons, wherein idioms like ‘a quarter pounder with cheese’ replace their diner lingo equivalents (‘yellow blanket on a dead cow’), we’re left with a few enduring relics that don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. And that means you can still have the pleasure of walking into a restaurant, sitting down, and making the following order: “One BLT with mayo, a burger with the works, two eggs sunny side up and two over easy, and four cups o’ Joe, please.”


Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she recently moved to Chicago.

To learn more about ALTA’s language services, including translation, training, interpretation, and testing, visit: www.altalang.com.

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