There’s nothing more American than a diner. (What’s that you say? Apple pie? Well diners are the places you get apple pie, so check and mate.) Over its nearly 150-year history, the rise and fall of the diner has shaped Americana. And one area that has been strongly affected is the language of food.
A Brief History Of The Diner
Before looking at language, let’s look at why diners became so popular. The first “diner” was built by Walter Scott in 1872, and it was a horse-drawn wagon filled with food that he would pull around Providence, Rhode Island. Its original purpose was to give people a place to buy food at night after all the regular restaurants had closed. Today, a wagon restaurant is more similar to a food truck, but it was this carriage that helped kick off the diner craze.
Soon, diners were sprouting up all over the eastern seaboard. They were often built into abandoned trolley cars, operating all night and attracting lower-class customers, which earned them a negative reputation. For a while, they were even banned from certain cities and towns, including New York City.
The reputation of diners was rehabilitated in the 1920s when entrepreneurs Patrick J. “Pop” Tierney and Jerry O’Mahoney started mass-producing lunch cars that were shipped from Massachusetts and New Jersey to places all over the country. It was these clean lunch cars — also called “dining cars” and later shortened to just “diners” — that improved the reputation of these eateries, and also defined the sleek chrome look of diners for decades to come. At the height of diner popularity, there were 6,000 of them across the United States, compared to only about 2,000 today. New Jersey is the proudest of the diner states, currently home to about 600 of them.
The Rise Of Diner Lingo
In the mid-20th century, a curious phenomenon arose: diner lingo, which used various words or phrases to refer to food. For example, a hot dog could have been called a “bow wow,” a “Coney Island,” a “tube steak,” or any number of other silly names. Some forms of diner lingo had been around almost since the first diners opened, but they didn’t become a central part of the experience of eating at a diner until later.
Why did diner lingo spring up? Originally, these phrases may have facilitated faster communication between servers and cooks, but eventually, they served a higher purpose: entertainment. Many of the phrases are meant to be comical, like saying “alive” for “raw” and “Bronx vanilla” for “garlic.” By the 1950s, knowing the lingo was an important asset for anyone applying to work at a diner. Hearing your server yell “Burn one, drag it through the garden and pin a rose on it” after you ordered a burger was as central to the diner experience as sitting in the booths and eating the food.
Today, the use of diner lingo is pretty limited. The phrases have been collected on websites like DinerLingo.com, but the slang has gone out of fashion at actual diners. While most diner lingo is all but gone today, some phrases have survived by entering our food lexicon. The names for preparing eggs, like “over easy” and “sunny side up,” come from the dictionary of diners. The same goes for things like “BLTs” and burgers “with the works.” Without even knowing it, we all started speaking diner lingo.
To help you learn more, we created a guide to some of the terms that have been used in diners over the years. Have fun guessing the origins of these phrases (and seeing which ones are still in use today).