Pop vs. Soda

Soda Jerk

Photo: Matthew Vanitas

In my native New England, using ‘pop’ to refer to soft drinks is unthinkable.  So midwestern!  Having many relatives in the midwest, of course, I was often treated to this difference between our respective dialects.  Which is why I’m enamored with this dialect map of words for ‘soft drink’ created by Matthew T. Campbell. (It’s large and detailed, so I won’t post it here.)

You will notice that there are actually three ‘soft drink’ synonyms in America: Soda in New England and Northeast, pop in the midwest extending through to the Pacific Northwest; and ‘coke‘ in the American South.

Two out of three of these words makes sense given the histories of soft drinks in their regions.  The soda fountain arrived on American soil in New Haven, Connecticut, hence the word ‘soda’ was probably more entrenched in the vocabulary of the Northeast by the time that Coca-Cola emerged in the late 19th-Century.

The South, of course, is where Coca-Cola originates.  Its ubiquity may very easily have resulted in this particular brand being synonymous with soft drinks of all kind.  (Much as Band-Aid has become synonymous with small bandages).

Which leaves the onomatopoeic ‘pop’ native to dialects of the Mid- and Northwest (so named, apparently, because of the sound made when removing a cork from a carbonated beverage).  The word, in reference to soda, dates back at least to the early 19th-Century. One of its first appearances is in reference to ‘ginger pop,’ an earlier term for ginger ale and similar beverages, here mentioned in a cookbook from 1824, entitled Cookery and Confectionary:

Ginger pop. One pound of loaf sugar, one ounce cream of tartar, one ounce of ground ginger, one gallon of boiling water; mix together; when nearly cold, add one spoonful of yeast; strain and bottle it; tie the cork over, and in six hours it is fit for use.

What this suggests is that the Northeastern and Southern terms for soft drinks are perhaps more innovative than ‘pop.’ The soda fountain apparently remained confined to the Northeast until the 1830s, and Coca-Cola didn’t arrive until even later. Still, I find it strange that American dialects are so clearly divided in this respect over a hundred years later.

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About Ben Trawick-Smith

Ben Trawick-Smith began his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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27 Responses to Pop vs. Soda

  1. Laura says:

    It’s unthinkable to say “pop” where I’m from in the Midwest too. It’s a pet peeve of mine when people group the entire Midwest together in discussions of accents or dialects.

    • trawicks says:

      I usually have that pet peeve as well. However, I make an exception here. Looking at the map (the validity of which I can’t 100% attest to, admittedly), ‘pop’ is startlingly scarce East of the Appalachians and south of the Mason-Dixon line. There are border areas, of course, that are grey areas: Oklahoma, W. Pennsylvania, and northern Arkansas, for example. But it’s otherwise a feature that crosses across several accent areas within the region we call the midwest.

      There are two very notable exceptions though. The region my father grew up in (NE Wisconsin) is one. The other is a large-ish island of ‘soda’ users surrounding the greater St. Louis area. Intriguingly, these are both area renowned for beer brewing; I have no idea if there is any possible connection, but it’s noteworthy in light of the fact that soft drinks were once considered a tool for the spread of temperance.

      • Laura says:

        You forgot about the area around Indianapolis where they say “coke”. Altogether (with the huge area around St. Louis and the large area of eastern Wisconsin) that’s millions of people who don’t say pop. It just really annoyed me when I moved to the South and people expected me to say “pop”. I never say “pop” and neither do any of my friends or family members. It’s like people have this silly stereotype that we’re all “golly geez” Sarah Palin types who like to drink “sodie pop” (yes, I know she’s from Alaska). That’s more like people from the northern part of the Midwest (big difference) if anything, but even then it’s pretty far off the mark. I’m from closer to St. Louis, which is really far from those places and really different in many ways. I talk very much like people on the national evening news. The “Midwest” is a huge area. I can’t emphasize that enough. I’m not angry at you, I just want to make sure that people who come here learn something.

        • Generalization is here to say. People generally say “pop” in the Midwest, and that includes Indiana. I’m from pretty damn near where you are and everyyyyyone says “pop.”

          I don’t think you should get so annoyed about what people expect you to say. I mean, I decided around age 15 that I hated the word “pop” and would only say “soda,” so I do, no matter if people expect me to say “pop” or not.

      • Ellen K. says:

        I totally didn’t take your post as suggesting that the whole of the Midwest without exception says “pop”. I’d’ve objected to that, being from near St. Louis. But your statement seems unobjectionable to me.

    • Kelly G says:

      Having grown up in Pittsburgh in the 1950′s, I can say that “pop” was ubiquitous. I never heard anything else except on TV. Now, I’d say that “soda” is a lot more common, although still not as common as “pop.”

      I now live in Austin, TX (100 miles from the birthplace of Dr. Pepper) and I often hear “Coke” to mean any kind of cola, but “soda” when there is a choice of carbonated beverages; Dr. Pepper or Coke, for example.

  2. Anna says:

    I’m from northern California and I’ve always said soda. Both of my parents say soda, too (dad’s from Scotland, mom’s from southern California). When I moved up to Oregon I remember how weird it was hearing the occasional person say “pop”, but most people I know here just say soda. Then again, the majority of people I know here are young – the only people I’ve ever heard say “pop” are older.

    • Matthew says:

      California is a soda area according to that map.

      • Julie says:

        California is a soda area, but I didn’t know the word before attending college in Sacramento. When I was growing up on the Mendocino Coast, we usually called it “Coke,” or sometimes whatever brand we were actually drinking. My father, however, (born in San Francisco in the 1920s) likes to call it “soda water.” I think that’s a parody of something, though.

  3. Charles Sullivan says:

    I’ve heard people say ‘soda-pop,’ but it’s not listed on the map.

  4. AL says:

    I love the soda-pop question! Growing up in California and Maryland, I am 100% with the soda camp.

    I found this site interesting:
    http://dialect.redlog.net/staticmaps/q_105.html

    I now live in Boston, but I’ve never heard anyone call soda “tonic”. Perhaps it is only used by older speakers?

    • m.m. says:

      I’d corroborate with the tonic = older speakers from a paper i read on the subject, but the exactness eludes me

    • Daisy says:

      I think it is mainly older people that use “tonic”. My mother used to say it, and I picked it up from her but don’t recall many people my age using it. (I moved away from the Boston area 15 years ago and had to stop calling it that pretty quickly since nobody had a clue what I was talking about.)

      • Jesse A. says:

        My father (b.1953; Belmont, MA) grew up saying tonic, but now says soda, and did my entire childhood. I (b. 1983; Lexington, MA) grew up saying soda, as did all of my peers. My grandfather (b. 1927, ; Dorchester, MA) would sometimes still stay tonic, but mostly said soda, so far as I can recall. So figure it phased out sometime after the 60s, maybe a touch later, but my the mid-80s it was almost entirely gone, except for older folks.

  5. Marc Leavitt says:

    In New Jersey we drink soda. But I also occasionally heard soda pop(but not in years). When I went to school in Michigan for a couple of years, I heard pop.

  6. Philip says:

    All Canadians say ‘pop’ though on menus ‘soft drinks’ is common. In my native Northern Ireland all pop/soda drinks are usually referred to as ‘lemonade’ and occasionally as ‘fizzy drinks’. In Canada and England ‘lemonade’ refers to a flavour of juice.

    • darren says:

      I was going to say that for me I soft drinks is more natural than pop

    • Noirem says:

      In the UK lemonade most commonly refers to lemon/lime flavoured soft drinks such as Sprite. “cloudy lemonade” may actually have lemon juice in and “still lemonade” is more like the lemon juice beverage Americans call lemonade.

    • Gabriel DeLong says:

      In Québec we use pop, and that means well in french it means a lemon flavored soft drank. Au revior

  7. darren says:

    in Canada at least in Ontario its ‘Pop’

  8. Sooryan FM says:

    Colorado (the supposed home of the General American):

    What is your generic term for a sweetened carbonated beverage?
    a. soda (35.48%)
    j. other (4.11%)
    b. pop (48.97%)
    c. coke (4.99%)
    e. soft drink (6.16%)
    h. fizzy drink (0.29%)

  9. John Netzel says:

    I had to learn the hard way that the Canadian name for the stuff is “pop.” Apparently a lot of Americans are too stupid to know that they should be saying “soda” or “coke.”

  10. steve says:

    Thanks for the information. I didn’t know they used to word Coke to refer all the soda drinks in the south. I thought they use pop most of the time.

  11. Gabriel DeLong says:

    Salut! I’m from Quebec, and we don’t speak anglais here to much but when I talk to anglais speakers I do use the phrase pop. I do realize that your only referring to américains, but I felt like sharing my dialect in anglais with you. Au revior (I speak english pretty well, although I’ve been practicing.)

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