vintage Coke ad


I’ve gotten this link from several places in the past couple weeks: Pop vs. Soda. Does what it says on the box: a website that asks people what term they use for carbonated beverages. The results are entirely plausible if you compare the distribution to things that we all know are true (people in the South have a tendency to refer to all forms of soda pop as "Coke,"1 people in the Midwest call it "pop"2).

It’s fun, but if you’re left wanting more, I suggest the the 2002 Web-based Dialect Survey conducted by the impossibly named Bert Vaux (pronounced "vox," get it?), then an associate prof at Harvard, now a fellow in linguistics at Cambridge.

As Vaux admits, the responses are weighted to urban areas (it was 2002, fewer people were Internet junkies), but it’s fascinating nonetheless. For instance:

* What do you call it when rain falls when the sun is shining? Despite being Southern, I’d never heard the term "the devil is beating his wife."

* The eternal kitty-/catty-corner debate (the latter is weighted more towards the South).

* Garage sale vs. yard sale: completely unsurprising that the former would be weighted towards urban areas. Where I grew up, I don’t recall anyone who had a garage; I’m sure I knew someone who did, but I can’t think of any offhand. Carports, yes. And of course everyone had a yard, which I don’t anymore. And: tag sale?

* Crawfish vs. crayfish vs. crawdad: I think I used crawfish and crawdad interchangeably, and had heard crayfish. And it turns out I grew up in the area with the most overlap, in southwestern Virginia. It’s interesting to see how "crawdad" cuts through the center of the country.

* As an aside, I think I just grew up in a linguistically heterogenous region. Which makes sense; Roanoke is a railroad town, on the mountain range that separates Appalachian Virginia from Piedmont (more "Southern") Virginia. Culturally it’s both Appalachian and mid-Atlantic Southern, but also (comparatively) cosmopolitan. And I think you can tell from the Soda/Pop/Coke map. Roanoke County is the yellow "soda" county surrounded by red "Coke" counties and a stone’s throw from blue "pop" country. It’s one of the few regions of the country where all three generic names intersect:

* "Loyer" vs "Law-yer," one of my tells. As is "CREAM cheese" vs "cream CHEESE," "UM-brella vs "um-BRELL-a," and "sneakers vs tennis shoes."

* And my favorite, "what do you call the activity of driving around in circles in a car?" I did not know there were terms besides "doing donuts," but there is one that is apparently native to the Upper Midwest, and it is both obscene and wonderful.

The majority of Vaux’s work is arcane, with a focus on Armenian. But you might enjoy "Metalinguistic, Shmetalinguistic: The Phonology of Shm-Reduplication" (PDF) from the Proceedings of the 39th Chicago Linguistics Society, in which he explores the origins and meaning of the dismissive "term, shmerm" construction. The origins are what you might guess:

Though shm-reduplication is most familiar from English, individuals who are familiar with it generally feel it to be of Yiddish origin. Southern (forthcoming) suggests that shm-reduplication arose in Yiddish from a mix of Turkic Echo m- and East Slavic sh-. The Oxford English Dictionary on the other hand sees it as an English-internal development, “derived from the numerous Yiddish words that begin with this sequence of sounds”. The existence of early Yiddish forms in shm- supports the former theory over the latter (cf. Weinreich (1980:623-4), who seems to think that the construction goes back several centuries in Yiddish.) Southern cites in his support Yiddish shmallig, employed in a manuscript of c.1600 to disparage hallig ‘holy’. Yitskhok Niborski (personal communication) hypothesizes that the archetype for shm-reduplication in Yiddish is the collocation tate shmate ‘father shmather/rag’, which he states was already in use more than 150 years ago in European Yiddish communities. It would have been used, he adds, by an embittered wife against the man who provided her with children but not with an income. In this case shmate is an independent lexical item meaning ‘rag’, but it may have provided the vehicle for reanalysis as an echo formation.

But the dismissive echo construction is not unique to Yiddish or English:

Shm-reduplication resembles echo formations in other languages in being used to downplay or deride a particular phrase (cf. Emeneau 1939 for South Asian languages).

For example, in the south Indian language Kannada, which Vaux translates: baagil-giigil-annu ‘doors-shmoors-acc.’ or baagil-annu giigil-annu ‘doors-acc-shmoors-acc.’

He notes: "there is no semantic difference between these derivations."

1Yes, I know it’s weird to call "soda pop" by the seemingly specific name "Coke." But it’s not uncommon. Lots of trademarks have become generic words: some are more obvious like "Xerox" and "Band-Aid," others surprised me, like "Heroin." Quoth Wikipedia: "Scholars disagree as to whether the use of a recognized trademark name for similar products can truly be called "generic", or if it is instead a form of synechdoche."

2My regional pop tips: buy a bottle of Pepsi—not Coke, it’s not fruity-sweet enough—and pour salted peanuts in it. Kind of Southern (and Midwestern?) bubble tea. It’s good: salty, sweet, and terrible for you. RC Cola and Moon Pies are also a traditional snack.


Photograph: iluvcocacola (CC by 2.0)