Know Your Regional Vocabulary

By Mark Nichol

One of the delightful facts about American English is that even though the rich regional variety of pronunciation and vocabulary ever diminishes, we’re still a long way from universal treatment of the language, and that’s an important detail for writers to observe. Take soda, for example. I mean pop. I mean coke.

Each of these three terms for carbonated beverages is prevalent in various parts of the United States, and the respective regional dominations aren’t likely to go flat soon. According to a Web site that invites visitors to engage in an ongoing electronic survey of word usage, coke is it in the South, in much of Arizona and isolated other parts of the Southwest, and, curiously, in pockets of south and central Indiana. (The dominance of coke in the South may have something to do with the fact that Coca-Cola is based in Atlanta.)

Pop, however, is the dominant variant in terms of geographical coverage, popping up throughout the northern states outside New England and rarely elsewhere. Soda, by contrast, which accounts for a slim majority by population, is the term of choice in the Northeast, in and around Miami and St. Louis, in eastern Michigan, and in much of Northern California and Arizona. (This Northern Californian concurs, though I call carbonated beverages “soft drinks.” But I don’t drink them, so what do I know?)

Other, relatively rare synonyms are tonic in the Boston area and dope in some parts of North Carolina and South Carolina. (The latter term perhaps derives from the fact that originally, Coca-Cola contained cocaine — hence the brand name.) The dominant vocabulary in selected other nations includes “soft drink” for Australia and New Zealand (no, I’m not from Down Under), mineral in Ireland, and pop in Canada.

What does what you call a carbonated beverage have to do with writing? Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, it behooves you to adhere to the local dialect, including vocabulary, when you’re engaging with regional culture. That’s easy for many authors, who write about their own neck of the woods and are intimately familiar with the local word-hoard.

But if you’re going to virtually venture afar in your writing, make sure your characters don’t stand out as strangers by the way they talk — unless, of course, that’s the point: A great strategy for showing, not telling, in a fish-out-of-water tale is to introduce the character by having them, for example, ask for a tonic when they sit down at a diner in the rural South.

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16 Responses to “Know Your Regional Vocabulary”

  • Rebecca

    If writers travel, they’ll benefit from knowing ‘international’ vocabulary, especially slang vocabulary.

  • Sally

    Good point, Rebecca, although it takes a while to pick up on slang.
    I was traveling in Germany with 10 fellow Americans; we had a German guide who spoke fluent English. We noticed that water as we knew it was never served at meals – only fizzy, carbonated bottled water. Some of us were ready for some plain old water, so our guide explained to the restaurant server that we wanted ‘water with no bubbles’. I guess there wasn’t a term for uncarbonated water.

  • Roberta B.

    In the high end restaurants around here, you’d ask for “still” water (meaning no bubbles, as opposed to distilled) …….and if you don’t want it added to your tab, you’d ask for the regular variety or from the tap, as opposed to bottled.

  • Roberta B.

    BTW, serving water with a meal used to be automatic at restaurants, but with all of the water conservation measures now imposed or volunteered, it is provided as an extra (usually upon request). I’m told the reason is not to conserve the poured water you might waste by not drinking (which seems rather small), but to avoid the the necessity of washing all of those additional glasses. Regardless, restaurants now have another opportunity to charge for additional items.

  • RDM

    I’ve always found regional dialects and speech patterns interesting. I live in Missouri, which has about four distinct dialects. The writer of today’s tip is correct: They say “soda” in St Louis but 250 miles away in Kansas City, MO, it’s “pop.” They also pronounce the state’s name as “Missou-rah” in St Louis while in Kansas City it’s pronounced as “Missou-ree.”

    One of my grandmothers from rural southeast Iowa never sat on a couch or sofa. She always sat on her “davenport,” which is a common name for a sofa in that area of the country.

  • Mark Nichol

    In the reference to eastern Michigan, I meant to write “eastern Wisconsin.” Here’s the Web site I used to research this topic.

  • jessiethought

    interesting comment, RDM.

    Personally, I say soda.

    P.S.
    These are the kind of discussions I have in my head but nobody else is interested in or likes to talk about!

  • Larry

    Regarding your parenthetical comment, “(The latter term perhaps derives from the fact that originally, Coca-Cola contained cocaine — hence the brand name.), while you are technically accurate, in 1902 the amount of cocaine was “as little as 1/400 of a grain of cocaine per ounce of syrup.” The amount of cocaine in Coca Cola was never as much as people believed (or hoped). For more on the use of cocaine in this soda, see http://www.snopes.com/cokelore/cocaine.asp.

  • Christy

    Of course it’s Coke, y’all! What’chall been drinkin’?

    I’m in Minnesota and *refuse* to say “pop.” I was born in Mississippi, and spent most of my life in Tennessee, Kentucky, Georgia, Florida, and Virginia.

  • Cygnifier

    “Pop.” That ubiquitous midwestern word. I grew up in North Carolina where everything was coke (“soda” had ice cream in it). Then I moved to Ohio where it was clearly “pop,” a word that popped up in South Dakota as well. Years later I was in Dubai, UAE, and was overheard saying I was headed out to get a “pop” — and a perfect stranger came over to me exclaiming “oh, wow. Someone from home!” and swept me into a hug. — “Dope” was a common enough term in down state North Carolina though that the soda fountain at Duke University was originally called the “Dope Shop.” I’m not sure the name survived the creation of a separate student union building, but in the 70s, when I was there, it was still located in the basement of a building on the main Quad and still called the Dope Shop.

  • Peter

    Are you saying people use “coke” as a generic term for carbonated soft-drinks, not just Coca-Cola? I bet the Coca-Cola company is livid about that! (They’ll lose their trademark if they don’t prosecute people for that!)

  • Jean Gogolin

    Once, when I had a job that involved a long commute, I used to listen to a lot of books on tape. One I particularly remember included a reference to “quahog,” which as every New Englander knows, means a large clam and is pronounced “Ko’hog.” When the reader pronounced it “kwa’hog” with a long “a,” it stopped me cold.

  • Naomi Hamm

    This is real good this time, again. Down south here, it is like this: a soft drink is called a pop, but if you have preferences just ask upfront for a coca cola or a Dr Pepper, Pepsi, or Pibb Extra or Mr Pibb or Sprite, etc. You get the jest of it! And therefore if you are writing about the southern dialect you may presume correctly to refer to it as a southern drawl. In their claidistine meeting, they came together as one, hotly fiercely and swiftly! “Oh I thought I would never see you again,” she sultrily drawled.

  • Stephen

    I’m from England, and I have heard and used most of these terms. Carbonated beverages are soft drinks or fizzy drinks, although I sometimes use the term soda, particularly for specific varieties like orange soda or cream soda. (Soda is the term for the carbonated liquid frequently mixed with syrup in order to produce all types of soft drinks, especially in bars and restaurants.) Coke is used to refer to cola drinks mainly, although cherry coke is quite common. Tonic is used for tonic water only (and is best known as a mixer with gin). Pop is less common, and I think mostly for non-brand drinks.

    I’ve heard mineral in regards to mineral water, but not soft drinks. The only one completely new to me is dope.

  • venqax

    Peter: Yes. In the southern US any carbonated soft drink is a coke. Coca cola is just that. So if you say you want a coke, a typical follow-up question is, “What kind of coke? Orange, 7 Up, root beer..?” For some reason the same is true amongst Americna Indians– but not whites– in the West. “Give me three cokes, make one orange”, is a typical fast-food order. An unspecified coke is a cola drink.

  • venqax

    This post covers an extremely important point that it seems would be self-evident. I’ve just finished reading a novel by a British author that takes place in American, with all American characters. It was a very good story, but all the way through it was horribly distracting having both dialogue and descriptions in British English that were entirely out of place. Characters repeatedly doing things, “straightaway” and “having a go” at things they sometimes got “spot on”. They never went around anything, but ’round it– which I’m guessing must be a Britishism since I’ve never seen it before. The absolute depth was when the day was described as a “balmy 28 degrees”. And what in the name of all that is holy is a “booster screen”? In context I assume the writer was referring to a monitor, but I can’t find the term booster screen anywhere in any lexicon of computer terms on the planet. How this escaped an editor, let alone the author himself, is a mystery. Such a deaf ear for dialect really calls into question someone’s professional qualifications.

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