Soft Drink Debate

Learn about the soft drink debate across the U.S. and which region uses the word Pop vs. Soda vs. Coke.

A debate rages beneath the surface of our country. It’s not about red states and blue states; it’s not even about Coke or Pepsi. The soft drink debate is about what we call Coke and Pepsi. Whether a soft drink is a “soda,” a “pop” or a “coke” can become a concern in geographically mixed households.

“Soda” supporter Karen Talbott-Wood says, “If my husband (who is from southeastern Kansas) asks for a ‘pop,’ I tell him his father isn’t here, and neither is mine. He does not find that amusing.”

The question has captured the imagination of at least a few researchers.

Greg Plumb, a professor with the Department of Cartography and Geography at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma, and his student Matthew Campbell have used their mapping skills and an informal Internet survey by Alan McConchie to get to the bottom of the issue. They’ve created maps (available at www.OKAtlas.org/okatlas/vernacular/usa/softdrinks.htm) to chart “soda,” “pop” and “coke” speakers in the United States.

The map suggests soft-drink dialect differences are very regional (with a few exceptions). Speakers on the East and West coasts use the word “soda” to refer to a carbonated beverage that is nonalcoholic, flavored and sold in bottles or cans. Midwesterners and those in the Pacific Northwest drink “pop,” and in the South, you can order a “coke” and be asked, “What kind?”

A quick perusal of the map shows St. Louis as the great bastion of “soda” speakers in the Midwest. St. Louis native Fernando Vigil says, “I have a surprisingly deep — even to me — certainty that ‘soda’ is right and the other options are wrong.”

We asked a few St. Louis natives why. Stephanie Howe cites relocation to St. Louis from the East and West coasts. She says “St. Louis is sometimes called the westernmost Eastern city.”

Mary Haselbauer agrees. “St. Louis just sounds different from the rest of the state. More than once I’ve had people in outstate Missouri ask if I was from the East Coast,” she says. She also wonders if the preponderance of engineers in St. Louis has caused a trend toward the “precision” of the term soda.

It’s easy for soda-speakers to trace the origins of their word choice from soda water through soda jerks to the present, and, while it may seem strange to some to call all soft drinks by one brand name, Band-Aids, Xerox and Kleenex offer ample evidence of this trend. Where this “pop” thing came from isn’t as obvious.

According to the American Beverage Association (ABA), “pop” began as a reference to flavored soda water in bottles in the mid-19th century. The term comes from the sound of the bottle opening, not from the contents, and it came into favor with new ways of capping the bottles. The Hutchinson stopper and the crown cap evidently encouraged a popping sound. The ABA cites the 1881 edition of A History of American Manufacturers from 1608 to 1860 by J. Leander Bishop, which includes an entire classification devoted to “Mineral Waters and Pop,” as an industry-wide indicator of the term’s use.

In other words, none of these terms is more “correct” than another, so beat your bottlecaps into plowshares and sip your fizzy drinks in peace.

Soft Drink Resources

American Beverage Association, www.AmeriBev.org/faqs/index.aspx

The Great Pop vs. Soda Controversy, www.PopVsSoda.com/

Dialect Survey, cfprod01.imt.uwm.edu/Dept/FLL/linguistics/dialect/staticmaps/q_105.html

Web Atlas of Oklahoma, www.OKAtlas.org/okatlas/vernacular/usa/softdrinks.htm

Published on Mar 1, 2007

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