Streetcar: A Drink by Any Other Name

ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION

Well, it has come to this, a column based on information gleaned from blogging. Here I come, new world. At least the subject is worthy.

I recently commented in a blog about a series on The History Channel entitled “How the States Got Their Shape.” On one episode the topic was linguistics and how word usage varies from place to place. The example was fizzy drinks.

According to the program, the nation is divided into two: those who say “pop” and those who say “soda.” “But wait a moment,” I thought, “Down here on the lower Mississippi we say something else. Our word is ‘soft drink.’”

I am not sure from where that term originated. One thought is that since New Orleans was never shy about boozing, maybe the term evolved to separate it from alcoholic “hard liquor.” If that were the case, a highball would be a hard soft drink.

To complicate matters, there’s also a division by race. In some parts of the city blacks tend to refer to such drinks as “cold drinks.” During the summer while going to college, I worked at a city-run swimming pool where my duties included filling the drink machine. One day one of the lifeguards, who was black, asked me, “Are the cold drinks cold?” I told him that they weren’t, and we both understood that, though not yet cooled, they were still “cold drinks.”

Logic seldom seems to follow word usage. There is a smaller, mostly Southern, subset that refers to all such drinks as “cokes.” As one blog reader put it: “How about growing up & everything that was carbonated was named a ‘Co-Cola.’ A ‘Grape Co-Cola’ or an ‘Orange Co-Cola’ or even a ‘Pepsi Co-Cola’ was perfectly normal.” [sic]
That response was fascinating, but the reply that really baffled me came from “Katelyn-Mae” who wrote to say; “We refer to them as ‘soft drinks’ here in the Land Down Under – Australia!!” [sic]
Australia! Now how is it that that the phrase “soft drink” doesn’t even survive throughout Louisiana but is spoken near the outback? Beats me, unless it’s used to distinguish from beer the same way I suspect that “soft drink” evolved here to separate it from hard liquor.

For whatever the linguistic differences are in the land, I say bless them all. One day all the nuances will be lost because of mass media, and everyone will sound alike and use the same words. Until then, relax. And may all your sodas be soft and cold.
 

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