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American English moves at the speed of, well, sound, and there’s no better display of the language’s fast pace and colorful texture than a restaurant. That was the case in the 1930s, too, as Harold W. Bentley’s exploration of “soda jerker” slang reveals.

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Soda fountains may be all but dead in the United States today, but during the Great Depression they were on what seemed like every corner. What Bentley calls a “peculiarly American phenomenon,” these restaurants were temples of food, socialization — and slang.

Bentley saw soda fountains as a place to scout out the novel and bizarre, from drinks named after current events to cheeky terms for otherwise ordinary items. Part of this, writes Bentley, stems from the ingenuity and display of soda jerks themselves. “A clever waiter urged on by an appreciative audience,” he writes, “would be induced to bring forth all the fresh expressions his wits might concoct.”

All those linguistic fireworks led to a vibrant soda fountain slang with distinctive regional differences. From “nervous pudding” (Jell-O) to “skid grease” (butter), soda jerks displayed what Bentley called “a refreshing aptness” in envisioning and re-envisioning the mundane world around them.

In celebration of the special language of the soda fountain, Bentley collected hundreds of words during numerous personal trips (and probably plenty of ice cream sodas) between 1934 and 1935. Here are a few gems from his glossary, which includes many terms you might recognize from modern restaurant slang and many that illustrate soda drinks that have long gone out of fashion:

BELCH WATER: Seltzer water
CAT’S EYES: Tapioca
C.O. COCKTAIL: Castor oil prepared in soda
EIGHTY-SEVEN AND A HALF: Girl at table with legs conspicuously crossed or otherwise attractive
FIFTY-FIVE: Root beer
HOBOKEN SPECIAL: Pineapple soda with chocolate cream
NOAH’S BOY WITH MURPHY CARRYING A WREATH: Ham and potatoes with cabbage
PUT OUT THE LIGHTS AND CRY: Liver and onions
TWIST IT, CHOKE IT, AND MAKE IT CACKLE: Chocolate malted milk with egg
WESTERN: Coca-Cola strong with chocolate flavor

Check out our linguistics column Lingua Obscura for more stories about language.


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American Speech, Vol. 11, No. 1 (Feb., 1936), pp. 37-45
Duke University Press