7 Bartending Terms and What They Actually Mean

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Everything old is made new again, and bar slang is no exception. If you’ve spent an evening at a bar in the last few years, you’ve probably noticed that the bartender’s (and some customers’) language is peppered with quippy slang.

Some of it is probably familiar, but its origins or exact meaning maybe be a bit strange. To help you navigate your next bar order, we’ve put together a list of seven bar terms and their generally accepted definitions.

1. 86 (also 86’d, 86ing)

Within the bar and restaurant world, patrons and ingredients alike can get 86’d. If a bartender runs out of something or wants to get rid of it, she may tell other barstaff to 86 it. Likewise, a bartender can 86 a customer who’s had a bit too much by kicking them out.

86's etymology is a little murky with explanations ranging from alcohol strength to the number of bullets French soldiers were issued. Supposedly, its use in the restaurant industry dates back to the 1930s to signify that they ran out of something. There’s also the possibility that it comes from Prohibition-era raids at a bar called Chumley’s at 86 Bedford Ave in New York City. As this story goes, a paid-off police officer would tip off a bartender by telling him to 86 his customers. In this case, it meant for them to leave via the Bedford Ave exit. But probably the most likely story is that it’s just another example of diner slang and that rhymes with “nixed.”

2. Chaser

This term for a small amount of a liquid—beer, water, soda, pickle brine, etc.—that accompanies a strong drink or shot is most likely derived from the French term chasse, which translates to “[it] chases.” Chaser has been in use in English since about 1800, but it most likely originally referred to the practice of taking a sip of liquor to quash the unpleasant aftertaste of coffee or tobacco.

3. On The Rocks

As one of the most commonly used bartending terms, it’s useful to know that this order will get you a bar’s standard pour (often 1.25, 1.5, or 2 oz) of straight spirit poured over ice in a rocks glass. Some Scotch whisky companies have asserted that this term comes from the Scottish tradition of chilling their drinks with rocks cooled in a river. Though interesting, the story is probably false.

A more likely story is that the term was born back in the days when ice cubes were chipped off of a larger block. As the phrase became more prevalent in pop culture, it became a more popular way to order whisk(e)y.

4. Up

Up and neat are two of the most confused terms in the bartending world. A drink served up has been chilled through by shaking or stirring, then strained into an empty glass and served without ice. Its origins date back to 1874, but these are murkier than most. It’s likely that ordering a drink up meant that it was served in a glass with a stem. Though ordering something “down”—chilled and served in a rocks glass—is an extinct practice, it makes the stem seem that much more plausible.

5. Neat

A drink served neat, on the other hand, would be poured from the bottle into a glass and served at room temperature without ice. For spirits, this term seems to have arisen in the early 1800s, but was used to signify or order unadulterated wine from the late 16th century onwards.

6. Behind the Stick

If a bartender is behind the stick, he or she is working behind the bar doing the actual bartending rather than managerial tasks. Though this term is believed to have come from the wooden handles on beer taps, its exact origins are still unknown.

7. Finger (Unit of Measurement)

This measurement system hearkens back to the saloons of the Wild West. Patrons would order the size of their pour based on the width of the barman’s fingers. Since this system is rather imprecise, many bars have abandoned it entirely. However, others have begun the fight to standardize a one-finger pour.

Bars fighting to formalize the measurement have advocated that one finger equals a 3/4 inch pour in a standard rocks glass. This translates roughly to an ounce, so one finger would be one ounce, two would be two ounces, etc.

15 Totally Tubular '80s Slang Terms

luckyvector (speech bubble), Andrii Vinnikov (background)/iStock via Getty Images Plus
luckyvector (speech bubble), Andrii Vinnikov (background)/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The '80s were a time when everything was bigger and brighter: Hair was high; fashion was loud; even the slang was outrageous … or should we say, bodacious? Here are a few ‘80s slang terms—which were popular in the era, even if they weren’t created during the decade—that you should start working back into conversations. Throw on some leg warmers, grab your favorite scrunchie, and let’s motor!

1. Bodacious

According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, this word—a blend of bold and audacious meaning “excellent, wonderful, very enjoyable”—was coined in the 19th century but found new life in the 1970s thanks to CB radio, where it was used to reference a strong incoming signal. In 1989, it was featured heavily in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure; you can see a short clip of Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter discussing the word here.

2. Hella

According to Green’s, this adverb can mean either “a lot of” or “very, extremely, really,” and it’s an abbreviation of helluva, as in, “he had one helluva headache.”

3. Gnarly

It’s probably not a surprise that gnarly comes from gnarled. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word originated in the 1970s as a surfing term meaning “dangerous, challenging,” perhaps in reference to rough seas. Green’s notes that gnarly can be a term of disapproval, meaning “bizarre, frightening, amazing,” or, conversely, it can be used to describe something that is “wonderful, first-rate.” It was popularized by Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).

4. Duh

This word, also frequently used in the phrase “no duh,” is, according to Green’s, a “grunt of incomprehension ... often used as a rejoinder, implying that the first speaker is stupid.” The OED’s first citation is a 1943 Merrie Melodies cartoon: “Duh ... Well, he can't outsmart me, 'cause I'm a moron.” In 1964, The New York Times Magazine noted that the word “is the standard retort used when someone makes a conversational contribution bordering on the banal. For example, the first child says, ‘The Russians were first in space.’ Unimpressed, the second child replies (or rather grunts), ‘Duh.'"

5. Tubular

Tubular, from the Latin tubulus and the French tubulair, began its life in the 1680s as a word meaning “having the form of a tube or pipe; constituting or consisting of a tube; cylindrical, hollow, and open at one or both ends; tube-shaped.” But in the '80s, it took on a new meaning entirely—this one related to waves. According to the OED, surfers in the U.S. used it to refer to “a cresting wave: hollow and curved, so that it is well-formed for riding on,” and soon, it came to mean “the ultimate in perfection,” according to Green’s. The word (as well as many others on this list) was featured in Frank Zappa’s 1982 song “Valley Girl”: “It’s so AWESOME / It’s like TUBULAR, y’know.”

6. Eat My Shorts

That’s shorts as in underwear. This phrase dates back to the early 1970s (Green’s cites a 1975 issue of the Harvard Crimson: “They chant cheers as [...] unrefined as ‘A quart is two pints, a gallon is four quarts; Harvard men will eat Yale’s shorts’”) but you might remember it from John Hughes’s 1985 film The Breakfast Club. Later, it would be used liberally by Bart on The Simpsons.

7. Gag Me With A Spoon

This expression of disgust, dating back to 1982, apparently had other forms as well: Gag me with a blowdryer, a snow shovel, a phone book (remember those?!).

8. Radical

This adjective, meaning “extreme; outrageous; good,” originated in the late 1960s. Radical is another term borrowed from surfer slang, according to the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, after which it “migrated into the argot of the San Fernando Valley”—a.k.a. Valley Girls—“and then into mainstream U.S. youth slang.” In 1988, it even appeared in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Green’s pinpoints the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze” of the 1990s for bringing radical to the masses. Rad, a shortened version of the word, was also a popular way to describe something you really loved (as well as the title of a 1986 BMX movie starring Lori Loughlin and Talia Shire).

9. Take a Chill Pill

When you tell someone to take a chill pill, you’re telling them to relax. According to Green’s, the phrase originated on college campuses in the early '80s.

10. Wastoid

According to The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, someone who is a wastoid is “a worthless, dim-witted person; a person whose drug and alcohol abuse is ruining their life.” The term was coined by John Hughes, who used it in The Breakfast Club: Listen for when Andrew tells Bender, “Yo wastoid, you’re not going to blaze up in here.”

11. Ralph

Apparently, in the ‘80s, instead of just ralphing—i.e., vomiting, because supposedly that’s what the act of retching sounds like—college kids would call for Ralph, according to Green’s. The verb ralph dates back to the 1960s, and you can once again find it in The Breakfast Club: “Your middle name is Ralph, as in puke.”

12. Bod

Bod dates all the way back to the ‘80s—the 1780s, according to the OED. A clipped form of body, it also refers more generally to a person, and may be a shortened form of bodach, a Scottish word for a specter. On college campuses in the 1960s, it came to mean “a physically attractive person of the opposite sex.” And when a girl asks Ferris “How’s your bod?” in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, what she’s actually asking is: How are you feeling?

13. Grody

Initially written in the mid-1960s as “groaty,” this term basically describes something that is slovenly, dirty, or super gross. If something is truly terrible, you might describe it as grody to the max. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1982, “Grody is used to describe a disgusting object. Moon Zappa calls her toenails ‘Grody to the max,' which means disgusting beyond belief.”

14. Motor

A verb meaning “to move quickly, to leave.” Curious about how to use it in a sentence? Look no further than this quote from the 1988 movie Heathers: “Great paté, but I gotta motor if I want to be ready for that party tonight.”

15. Veg

To veg or veg out, according to the OED, is to “To disengage mentally; to do nothing as a way of relaxing, to pass the time in (mindless) inactivity, esp. by watching television.” The OED dates the term, an abbreviation of the word vegetate, to a Toronto Globe and Mail article from 1979 that declared, “There's not the same flavor there used to be to traveling ... People just go to veg out, not to find out.” The past tense of the word can be found in The Totally True Diaries of an Eighties Roller Queen, which featured real diary entries from between 1983 and 1988: “Today I went to Tracey’s to pick up my guitar and stuff [...] I then went home and vegged out.”

The One Letter in the Alphabet That Can't Be Silent

Hafiez Razali, iStock via Getty Images
Hafiez Razali, iStock via Getty Images

The English language can be baffling at times—just look to words like phlegm, receipt, and chthonic for proof. Silent letters are unavoidable. Almost every word in the alphabet is occasionally guilty of taking up space without contributing anything, but there is one exception. According to Merriam-Webster, V is the only letter in English that consistently makes itself heard.

No matter where it appears, whether it's in love, voice, or divisive, V plays a vital role. Most letters are phonetic chameleons: That's why the C sounds different in cat and city, and why the g sounds like nothing at all in gnash. V is unique in that it never goes through an identity crisis.

There are a few letters that rival V's special status. Z is only silent in words we borrowed from the French, like chez, laissez-faire, and rendezvous. The one silent J in the entire English language appears in marijuana, a term of Spanish origin. But even accounting for words we've adopted from other tongues, there's not one example of a silent V in the English dictionary.

The prevalence of silent letters is just one frustrating aspect of our language. Here are a few more obstacles foreign speakers must encounter when learning English.

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