Diner / Dinor

I’ll take a jumbo hoagie with a side of BRAINS!

Dear Word Detective: Many small restaurants in the Northwestern Pennsylvania area, especially those built from a trolley or railroad dining car, have the spelling “dinor” on their sign. Is this only for this area or is this found anywhere else? And why this spelling? — Tenderrlee Hughes.

Why? Why ask why? Oh right, because this is a column where I answer questions. OK, well, if you read the fine print I plan to add to my web page as soon as we’re finished here, it says that twice every year, when faced with a weirdly disturbing question, I am allowed to paraphrase the classic line from the 1974 film Chinatown. If you’ve never seen Chinatown, you need to go watch it right now. I’ve seen it about twelve times, so I’ll wait here. Back so soon? No, I’m not talking about “My sister, my daughter…,” much as I love that scene. I mean the final line of the movie, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.” Well, forget it, it’s Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania, you see, is weird. Ask any dialectician. Pennsylvania has enough strange terms, phrases and pronunciations found nowhere else to raise serious questions about lost colonies of Martians and the duplicitous government agencies that cover them up. Furthermore, judging by the way “people” in Pennsylvania talk, we’re dealing with more than just one alien settlement. Pennsylvanians in the Philadelphia area in the eastern part of the state, for instance, tend to pronounce “merry” like the rest of us say “Murray” and “sure” like “shore.” They also tend to transport their small children in a “baby coach” down the “pavement,” which is what Earthlings call a “sidewalk.”

But, as is generally true in the US, the further west you go, the weirder it gets. I have always believed that when driving through central Pennsylvania it’s best to avoid stopping and to keep your arms and hands inside the car because of the zombies, but eventually you hit Pittsburgh and all hope is lost. While Philadelphia can boast of enriching generations of cardiologists by inventing the “cheesesteak,” Pittsburghians will forever be known for persistently referring to bologna lunch meat (aka “baloney”) as, for some inscrutable reason, “jumbo.” Compared to that, the local use of “nebby” to mean “nosy” (“neb” being an old English dialect word for “beak”) and “to redd up” for “to clean” seem almost normal.

Given the notable quirks of language in Pennsylvania, spelling “diner” as “dinor” seems only mildly strange. But the fact that it’s only spelled that way in the immediate vicinity of Erie in the northwestern corner of the state is very strange indeed. Yet when you plug “dinor” into Google, you get tons of hits for restaurants using that spelling in their names, and they’re all (cue the spooky music) around Erie.

A “diner,” of course, is a small, economical eatery, originally housed in a railway dining car (known as “diners” since the 1890s) retired and refitted as a stationary structure. The term “diner” was first applied to a non-mobile restaurant in the 1930s, and even today “diners” are often built to resemble the railroad cars they never were, complete with gleaming metal siding and aerodynamically-rounded corners. The New York City area used to be home to hundreds of such diners, often run by Greek immigrants, but the herd has been tragically thinned in recent years by the predations of the fast food empires. The classic Greek diner menu, twenty pages of colorful photos of improbable dishes, all supposedly available around the clock, really belongs in the Smithsonian.

As to why the folks around Erie spell “diner” as “dinor,” nobody knows, and nobody elsewhere, as far as I can tell, does it. My guess is that it started back in the middle of the last century (the heyday of the diner) with a simple typographical error in a sign, which was then copied and spread when other diners in town were established. Being somewhat isolated and off the beaten track up there in northwestern Pennsylvania probably helped. Or maybe it’s just a zombie thing.

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