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Greeks and Hash-House Lingo

February 18, 2023

From their very first arrival in North America, the ongoing efforts of the Greek workers to learn English always fascinated the Americans around them. In part, this is undoubtedly due to the sustained interest in the ancient Greek language and history that the educated classes of Americans regularly undertook well into the late-1800s. Given that the ancient Greeks were offered up as the very pinnacle of human achievement for Western students, the broken English that the newly arriving Greeks to America were only able to initially speak startled and frankly, also deeply amused the native-speakers around them. And as is the case with all new speakers of any language, Greeks frequently spoke American English incorrectly and most often with a marked accent. Compounding all this was – according writers of the early arrival of Greeks to American shores – these so-called Greeks were not even speaking ‘real’ Greek!
Noted Professor Henry Pratt Fairchild (1880-1956) esteemed sociologist and former missionary to the modern Greeks, in his book-length ‘Greek Immigration to The United States’ (1911) freely reported that he once spoke to several modern Greeks in ancient Greek and they absolutely had no idea what he was saying. Imagine that. If I spoke to old Henry in Middle English, how do you think he would have answered?

American vaudeville comedians, known as ‘dialecticians’, freely invented a kind of broken English that faster than one would think soon entered public life as ‘Grik-English’ dialect. These Greek dialecticians effortlessly made the transition from the vaudeville stage to radio, Hollywood films, and even early television. This ‘Gringlish’, if you will, did not stop with the passing of the dialectician’s staged brand of humor. Cross-overs in popular songs, Hollywood films, newspaper cartoon strips, motion picture cartoons, 78 rpm records and even the appearance of these same songs in sheet music form are still easily found. That these considerable period-specific public presentations of Greeks do not appear in today’s historical accounts on the Greek experience in the United States is a mysterious omission.

It is not surprising, then, to discover that in the early 1970s articles in the popular press an array of newspaper accounts began to appear with extensive examples of what has been subsequently labeled ‘Hash-House Greek’. In one sense, given the close association of Greeks with small restaurants across the United States we can perhaps forgive reporters of this period for associating and so labeling this unique language as such. It seems very likely that this linguistic connection was inspired by an old literary association. Unique to Greeks arriving to North America is the well-known phrase, “it’s Greek to me.” All literary and historical associations, aside the everyday meaning of this phrase is one of simply not understanding what is/was being said.

What should be of interest to all Greek-Americans is how enduring various stereotypes non-Greeks have of us to this very day. While some may be willing to forgive and forget non-Greeks for retaining these images of old about those of us who can still be found on American shores, it is a grave mistake to do so. While the ‘hash-house lingo’ aspect of this account stems from a time well before the American Civil War, the successful merging of Greek eateries found in America during the 1970s with this kind of slang has not disappeared. If all the accounts I am about to cite can be classified as raw information leading to academic study, then we need to understand how ethnic Greeks became fused with this antiquated form of restaurant slang.
First, a ‘hash house’ is a cheap and/or small restaurant where inexpensive food is sold. Given the current prominent presence of Greeks in the restaurant trade it makes some sense that contemporary articles would single them out for study. Hash-house lingo has to do with the customer’s order. Given that these kinds of eateries are usually extremely busy, to speed things along the customer’s order is shouted out to the cooks rather than simply written out on paper. Yet it is not a question of merely calling-out what the customer has ordered. The waiter/waitress uses a specialized vocabulary. Various arguments for why this should be the case range from “a hash house is a very noisy place such that the cooks could unintentionally misunderstand the order” to “all the cooks are foreigners and so don’t have a full command of English.”

But what is/was exactly being said? To give example of this lingo the following has been documented as being heard by various writers: ‘Adam and Eve on a raft’ which is in fact ‘two eggs on toast’. The ‘Red Man’ is a ‘slice of watermelon’.

‘Baled hay’ = ‘shredded wheat’. ‘Guess water’ = ‘soup’. ‘Cackleberries’ = ‘eggs’. ‘Drown the kids’ = ‘boiled eggs’. ‘Bark’ = ‘frankfurter’. ‘A hash-slinger’ = ‘a waiter’, ‘waitress’ or ‘short order cook’. Of course, ‘baby juice’, ‘moo juice’, ‘cow juice’ or ‘Sweet Alice’ all mean ‘milk.’ ‘Machine oil’ = ‘syrup’ and ‘Cow paste’ = ‘butter – and finally ‘bad news’ = ‘the check.’

Literally dozens more such individual words and phrases have been recorded being used in the United States since the 1840s. I would suggest consulting ‘Studies in Slang’, VII (January 1, 2006) by Barry A. Popik and Gerald Leonard Cohen in Scholar’s Mine a publication of the Missouri University of Science and Technology. A full copy of this volume is readily available online.

A careful reading of the available sources reveals that the last surge of writing on this restaurant lingo was in the 1970s. As fate would have it the journalists ‘discovered’ this restaurant-lingo still spoken in Greek-owned eateries of one sort or another. It is my assumption that the phrase ‘Hash-House Greek’ caught on so quickly with students of this subject matter is, once again, because of the underlying assumption within American culture that speaking Greek can be associated with confusion.

Among the most influential writers on this restaurant lingo was Dan Carlinsky, who offered a series of articles over time such as ‘The Traveler’s Guide to Hash-House Greek’, (New York Times, September 5, 1971) and ‘Survival Course in Hash-House Greek’, (St. Petersburg (FL) Times September 13, 1984). It is from Carlinsky’s articles that the phrase ‘Hash-house Greek’ came into general acceptance. Other articles on this topic continued throughout the 1970s and onward. Among those is the oft-cited ‘Hash House Greek Spoken Here’ by Douglas Yorke and Eve Yorke (Yankee Magazine March 1977).

A number of book-length studies also provide various vocabulary lists of this specialized lingo such as ‘Hash House Lingo: The Slang of Soda Jerks, Short-Order Cooks, Bartenders, Waitresses, Carhops and Other Denizens of Yesterday’s Roadside’ by Jack Smiley (Dover Publications, 2012) and ‘Sundae Best: A History of Soda Fountains’ by Anne Cooper Funderburg (Bowling Green, OH 2002). Clearly this eatery-specific language was never limited to small restaurants but was also heard spoken specifically at soda fountains, taverns, and elsewhere.
Again, if we remember our collective Greek-American history, candy stores/confectioneries were also understood – on literarily a national level – to be businesses prominently associated with Greeks.

So where do we go from here? Why is chaotic speech and your average Greek-American so deeply associated in the American psyche? I have never heard anyone use this kind of language. Have you? Is the long association, in the average American’s mind, between Greeks speaking and chaos just a holdover from old European proverbs and/or a chance phrase in a Shakespearean play?


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