Slang City Mail

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June 7, 2007

Slang of the Week: pearl diver (noun phrase)
a dishwasher

Jenny thought pearl diving sounded like a romantic job and was therefore surprised to find herself washing plates in a dish room instead of diving off a cliff into the ocean.

Celebrity quote:
“[Pete Jordan] maintained an extensive correspondence with fellow dish dogs and pearl divers (to use the professional jargon) and also published a dishwashing zine, full of dishwashing lore and dishwashing trivia. He discovered, for example, that both Presidents Ford and Reagan had scrubbed plates for money, as had Malcolm X and Little Richard.”
- Charles McGrath in the New York Times

I was a pearl diver for a few weeks between grad school and a production job with American Playhouse, and I would have to say it’s the most physically grueling position I’ve ever held: dirty, sweaty, slippery and heavy. If you weren’t falling on the wet floor under a fifty pound load of “pearls,” you were getting burned by steam or cut by broken glass. Therefore, despite the exalted company (Little Richard!) it’s hard for me to imagine anyone volunteering to do it for more than a month.

However, back in 1990, Pete Jordan (better known as “Dishwasher Pete”) set out to wash dishes in all 50 states. He didn’t make it; he was only a dish dog in 33 states before retiring his apron.

I initially became familiar with Pete Jordan’s cross country dishwashing trip a few years ago when he appeared on National Public Radio’s This American Life program. The show was called “First Day” and Jordan told listeners about his first day washing dishes on a Louisiana oil rig. Though I can’t remember all the details, one thing that stood out for me was the difficulty he was likely to have if he wanted to go back to shore before his time was up.

After many years of writing a zine* about his experiences, he recently published a book on the subject: Dishwasher: One Man's Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States (P.S.) You can find an excerpt at Note: this reading is not recommended if you don’t have a strong stomach; Pete seems to find a lot of snacks among the dirty dishes, not unlike the dumpster diving described in a 2005 newsletter.  

*What’s a zine? Originally called fanzines, these are magazines created by passionate amateurs (often fans of a band or devotees of a particular topic). They are produced on a tiny budget, usually by photocopying in black and white and stapling at the local copy shop. Though this word has strong associations with the 1990s, it was originally used in the late sixties. The early zines, many of which were written by science fiction fans, were mimeographed.

Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: Southern Talk: A Disappearing Language. Take a look and you might well find some of the expressions Dishwasher Pete encountered during his Louisiana oil rig job.