Evasive Maneuvers

Euphemisms old and new

Don't Bring Hen Fruit to a Duck Party: Old Diner Euphemisms

I love everything about used bookstores—except their negative effect on my wallet.

I recently found another wallet-drainer—and a gem of a word book—in Chicago's wonderful Myopic Books: Hash House Lingo: The Slang of Soda Jerks, Short-Order Cooks, Bartenders, Waitresses, Carhops and Other Denizens of Yesterday's Roadside. Originally published in 1941, Jack Smiley's book preserves the jargon of people who worked in diners during the 1930s and 40s. While this book doesn't offer a lot of detail on most terms, it does contain hundreds of words and phrases that are amusing, intriguing, puzzling, and—at times—extremely euphemistic.

So belly up to the bar: it's diner time, 1930s-style, and I'm your greasy secret decoder ring.

Adam and Eve on a raft

I was never much of a Bible scholar, but even the most studious of religious adepts might not know the meaning of this term: two poached eggs on toast. Warning: eating Adam and Eve on a raft may cause high cholesterol and God complex. Speaking of the Bible, a term for spare ribs is first lady, another reference to Eve with a logical origin story I believe was written by Stan Lee.

pay your rent

Presumably, this term was directed at amorous workers who get sidetracked by flirtations with customers or coworkers, because it means "stop bothering with the women and get to work." Paying the rent could lead to catching the monkey, which fortunately doesn't involve a disturbing breakfast item known as a Macaque McMuffin. Catching the monkey is simply kissing.

foreign entanglements

This term brings to mind peace treaties, war declarations, humanitarian interventions, international trade, and all the other stuff countries do with and to each other. But in Diner Land, foreign entanglements were something that required no diplomatic skills: spaghetti.

take a chance

This is one of the more subtle diner euphemisms. If a customer is taking a chance, they've ordered a dish such as hash or hamburger, which, this idiom implies, could also be called mystery mash or mystery meat.

nervous pudding

This term, appropriately, refers to the shakiest food of them all: jello. Why is jello so nervous? I'm not sure, but my guess is it's scared someone is going to eat it.

caught in a snowstorm

While being literally caught in a snowstorm would be a pretty good excuse to miss your shift at the diner, this refers to a not-so-great excuse for spacing out while working in one: being doped up, as in on dope of some sort. This term is apparently derived from the sense of snow as a drug, usually cocaine, sometimes heroin. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, that sense has been around since at least 1914, so the timeline fits, assuming no one has been screwing with our space-time continuum à la the speedsters on The Flash.

hen fruit

According to the rules of nutrition and common sense, an egg is about the furthest thing from a fruit imaginable—except in diner slang, which is creative and unconstrained. I like this term so much I'm going to start using it wherever I find eggs: fertility clinics, Mork and Mindy reruns, Easter Egg hunts, etc. I wonder if any Chicago diners serve Hen Fruit Benedict? A variation is wrecked hen fruit: scrambled eggs.

loosener

This is one of several terms that are more dysphemic than euphemistic, which means they wave reality in your face rather than hide the truth under a pile of puffy poppycock. A loosener is a prune, and if you don't know why, ask your grandpappy.

hemorrhage

This term is also more of a dysphemism than a euphemism, but shhhh, don't tell my supervisors at Euphemism Inc. A hemorrhage is ketchup, and this term is a reminder why the red stuff is the patron condiment of splatter movies.

dress a pig

To dress a pig is more than putting a shirt and hat on the ever-pantsless Porky Pig or one of his relations: dressing a pig is making a ham sandwich. Putting lipstick on a pig is a whole nother piece of pork.

pushing the clouds around

I'm not exactly sure what this expression has to do with diners, but it sure is euphemistic: if you're pushing the clouds around, you're dead (perhaps thanks to deadly diner delicacies).

give it to Hitler

Also recorded as give it to Adolf, this term is a sign of the times in which it was coined: to give it to Hitler is to throw it in the trash—an appropriate insult to the German monster. A less geopolitical variation was give it to the hogs.

duck party

This is a wedding, and I have no idea why. Still, I encourage your use of this term. Next time I'm invited to a wedding, I'm going to say, "Sorry, I don't do duck parties." Then I'll start quacking sarcastically. Pretty sure that won't lead to any follow-up questions.

This smattering of terms is just the tip of the grease-berg: there are hundreds of others, which are euphemistic, non-euphemistic, humorous, odd, and almost always colorful. If you're a word-lover, vocabulary collector, or diner enthusiast, you need this book—it could also make a swell gift at a duck party.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday June 4th 2015, 2:14 AM
Comment by: Nancy N.
My folks grew up in this era (both born 1921) and my dad had an endless string of little ditties, such as when I'd call out, "Hey, Mom! What's for dinner?" he'd pipe up with "Hot-water soup, but slightly thinner!" Perhaps that he was a sailor his whole life had something to do with this.

But there's one I loved, recently, when I went back to care for my mom after dad passed. I can't remember it exactly, and it's driving me nuts. Routine is everything to the elderly, and my mom watched Jeopardy and Wheel every night, so we didn't have dinner until after 8pm. She would say something like, "The commoners eat early, while the sophisticates dine late." It was much simpler than this, though.

Do you know it?
Thursday June 4th 2015, 9:10 AM
Comment by: MargieV
Long ago I had a roommate whose comment on 8 pm dinners was, "We're eating like the rich." I think what's behind it is the fact that the rich, who had no jobs to get to in the morning, slept late, ate late, and stayed up late.
mvail3
Monday June 8th 2015, 12:22 PM
Comment by: Alain R.
The term «duck party» refers to a wedding because men used to wear coats with a long tail(tuxedo) with their white shirt and a bow. They looked like black & white ducks and also penguins.

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