Is it soda? Or is it pop? Or soda pop? Or tonic? (Or sometimes even just plain Coke, no matter what kind of soft drink you order.) They’re all the right name for a soft drink. Which one you’ll hear depends on where you live.
Back in 1993, Alan McConchie opened a window on the word war with his freshman computer science project. Instead of arguing over who was right, he just asked people to say which word they used and give their zip code. That project turned into the Pop vs. Soda web page, which was the first time anyone ever managed to map the places where people used different words for their soft drinks. He’s added a postal code for Canada too now, but after seeing the results, he didn’t bother making a map.
When you look at that map, you’ll see that it’s no wonder it’s a particularly heated debate between soda and pop. After all, they’re pretty much neck and neck for the number of people using them.
To make matters even more heated, it’s partly a red state-blue state divide. A lot of people on both sides of that divide are absolutely convinced that they and their neighbours are RIGHT and everyone else is WRONG! When it’s a city island of soda in the middle of a state of pop, you’ll hear people claim that soda is what educated people call it, and pop is what the hicks call it.
Soda water is the original name for the drink, from the sodium bicarbonate used to make the fizz. It’s traceable back to 1798, but the soda part goes back a lot farther. One of the most popular versions was phosphate soda, from a recipe which added just a little bit of phosphoric acid to soda water and fruit syrup. That soon became just plain old soda, which was served at soda fountains.
Soda is still the most common word on the opposite sides of the US, on the southwest coast and the northeast coast. It’s the main word in California. It’s also used in all of the original thirteen colonies, although the farther west you go, the more you’ll hear pop instead of soda.
New York and Vermont are cut in half by the Appalachian Mountains. In the east, you’ll hear soda. In the west, you’ll hear pop.
For some reason, soda is also dominant in half of Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin. It’s like a little north-south island in the middle of pop country.
You can find a reference to pop in a British letter in 1812. Robert Southey wrote that he drank a new beverage which was called pop “because ‘pop goes the cork’ when it is drawn.” So pop’s at least as old as that.
Pop’s pretty dominant all the way across Canada. In Canada, if you ask for a soda, you’ll get plain soda water.
Probably it came to Canada straight from Great Britain. That makes sense when you consider that pop’s really strong in the Canadian Maritimes and Newfoundland, where there’s been a lot of British immigration in the 18th and 19th centuries. There’s even more evidence for this because the only place in Canada where you don’t often hear pop is in Quebec. There, it’s usually called a soft drink when it’s said in English.
Pop’s also common across the U.S. Midwest. Maybe the word went from Canada to the States at the same time as the War of 1812. Or maybe it just moved along the manufacturing corridor in Southwestern Ontario. When you’re the shortcut between Chicago, Detroit, and western New York, all the truck stops along that route are going to start using the same words.
You’ll find pop in every U.S. state west of the Great Lakes, all the way west to the Pacific Ocean. Pop also goes down mostly as far as the Mason-Dixon line, except for that Missouri-Illinois-Wisconsin soda island.
Most of the U.S. deep South and parts of Mexico use Coke for all kinds of soft drinks. Maybe that’s because the original Coca-Cola plant’s in Atlanta, Ga.
Virginia, Kentucky, and Florida are both split between soda and Coke. Virginia’s right on the geographic boundary between soda and Coke. Kentucky’s caught between pop and Coke.
Florida’s southern population calls it Coke, and people who move to Florida mostly call it soda. That’s except for the Canadian enclaves, who sometimes forget and call it pop. Of course, if a Canadian asks for pop and the waiter says, “You mean a soda?” the Canadian just usually says, “Yes, please.”