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Slingin' The Slang

June 29, 1986|CHARLES PERRY

There was a time when wiseacre soda jerks and gum-snapping waitresses had a language all their own, when counter-jumpers and soup-jockeys slung hash and lingo at the same time. Customers loved to listen, though they weren't supposed to use the slang themselves. That was only for the hash-slingers, who wanted to maintain a little exclusivity, a little mystification to distinguish themselves from the public.

How far back this hash-house/soda-jerk slang tradition goes is guesswork, though it has been said that the 19th-Century clergyman Henry Ward Beecher was the one who once tested a counterman's ingenuity by calling for the unusual order of scrambled eggs on toast. The counterman is supposed to have called the order back to the kitchen with the immortal coinage, "Adam and Eve on a raft, and wreck 'em."

Its heyday was certainly the hard-boiled era of the Teens through the '40s, when the turn-of-the-century immigrants and their children were undergoing assimilation and American wise-cracking was at its peak. Or so one would judge from the definitive "Hash House Lingo" by Jack Smiley, published by the author in 1941. Smiley compiled a melting-pot dictionary with Yiddishisms, bits of Cockney rhyming slang, the odd French expression, Negro slang and the tell-tale extravagant metaphors of the Irish and punchy appositions of the Italians, together with the sort of deracinated low-life jargon the midnight shift would have to know about.

Wisecracking, yes; positively cynical sometimes, particularly about dishes where the ingredients were a matter of speculation. Stew was mystery, soup was guess water, and to place an order for hamburger--this was before the all-beef burger became universal in the '50s--a waitress might chillingly call out "Sweep up the kitchen" or "Gentleman will take a chance."

Apart from deflating wisecracks, this lingo relied on puns and jokes for variety. Beef was moo, pork was squeal, chicken was cackle, and so on. Anything with apples in it was Eve, anything with strawberries hay. Not all were so obvious, though: Noah's boy was ham, first lady was spare ribs, pair of drawers meant "Draw two coffees" and tin roof was a glass of water (it was on the house--get it?).

Much of the slang in Smiley's book, of course, has to do with non-food aspects of the restaurant business. You had to deal with the "chief crook" (bookkeeper) even if you were only a "pearl diver" (dishwasher), and it helped to have a phrase like George Eddie to warn a fellow waitress of a non-tipping customer, the sort who tempted you to "bend the crab" (overcharge a surly customer). But the hash-slingers could apply a restaurant metaphor to just about anything--even being dead, or as they sometimes put it, "Sitting in booth No. 13."

This lingo petered out in the '50s. Maybe postwar prosperity did it in; everybody moved to the suburbs, hash houses became chain restaurants, soda fountains went out of fashion and the wisecrackers moved on to better-paying jobs. But who knows, the return to Americana food might bring it back--or the Latins and Asians who work in our restaurants today may come up with their own restaurant slang.

In fact, they probably will. They almost certainly will. To be American is to wisecrack, in any lingo.

HARDBOILED SYNONYMS

boiled socks (stewed apricots)

breath (onions)

Bronx orchid (cabbage)

buckshot (caviar)

cackleberries (eggs)

forever and ever (hash)

fly cake (raisin cake)

giggle soup (champagne)

hemorrhage (catsup)

lead pipe (spaghetti)

shimmy (Jell-O)

sneeze (pepper)

warts (olives)

wax (American cheese)

whistleberries (beans)

CONNECT THE ACTION WITH THE INGREDIENT

A--twist it, shake

it and make

it cackle

B-- put a hat on it

C--put a wreath on it

D--brand

E--pin a rose on it

1--bossie

2--henfruit

3--Georgia

4--mistake

5--red horse

ANSWERS:

A--2 (add egg to a malted milk)

B--3 ("Put a hat on Georgia": float ice cream on a Coke)

C--5 ("Red horse, put a wreath on it": corned beef and cabbage)

D--1 ("Brand bossie": fry a hamburger)

E--4 ("Mistake, pin a rose on it": liver and onions, also known as "put out the lights and cry")

OK, you can take one more point if you claim you could pin a rose on a hamburger as well.

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