Ask a 'sotan: Why do Minnesotans call soda 'pop'?

We dug into this popular question, which came from a notable guest for this series.

Cans of Coke on display.
Pop, soda, coke — those words get thrown around in various parts of the country when talking about soft drinks. Minnesota is widely known for its use “pop”, and a titan in the restaurant world wants to know why.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Ask a 'sotan is an occasional series exploring questions from curious Minnesotans about our state. Have a question about life in Minnesota? Ask it here.

Minnesotans are known for their particular phrases — and how they pronounce them. From "you betcha" to "mind your own beeswax," the regional dialect has a lot of quirks that get spoofed in pop culture and everyday conversation.

As part of our Ask a 'sotan series, we received a question about why residents here tend to call a popular beverage by a certain name. In a new twist to the series, that question came from a notable Minnesotan: award-winning chef and restaurateur Ann Kim.

This is what she asked us to look into:

"My question is — why do Minnesotans refer to soda as pop?"

Kim said this has been bugging her ever since she went to college out east.

"I went to college in New York, and my first week there, I asked the counselor in my dormitory, 'Where's the pop machine?' And she looked at me as if I was from a different planet," Kim said.

Kim said the counselor eventually blurted out "soda" when she realized what the two were talking about. These conversations happen a lot in a country where there are regional differences in how something so ubiquitous is described.

Ann Kim, owner and executive chef of three restaurants.
Ann Kim, owner and executive chef of the restaurants Young Joni, Pizzeria Lola, and Hello Pizza.
Photo by Eliesa Johnson Photography

This question was a tough one since there's no consensus about who officially started calling it pop, or why Minnesotans love the word so much.

But we were able to connect some dots on its origins and dig up some information about the regional differences.

We did hear from Minnesotans, but we also had to cheat a little on this investigation by taking it into western Wisconsin. Some students at the University of Wisconsin-Stout had researched the topic.

They say the term "soda pop" is traced back to the 1800s when seltzer water came into production and tasty carbonated beverages were eventually served at soda fountains in drug stores. Their report indicates "pop" itself caught on as slang, and was prominently used in northern states like Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Meanwhile, Faygo, the Detroit-based soft drink company, is said to be the first to market soda as "pop" after the sound the lid made when it popped off the soda bottle. Others give a store in Erie, Pa., credit for coining the term in 1868.

Back on the Minnesota side, Mark Lazarchic is owner of the Blue Sun Soda Shop in Spring Lake Park. He floated another popular theory behind the term’s origins.

“Old bottles had a marble inside of them, and the pressure would push up the marble to keep the bottle sealed,” he said. “And the way you got to the soda was you slammed your hand on the top of it, and it ‘popped’ the marble down into the bottom and then you could drink it.”

So, despite some explanations, there’s no official credit on who started calling it pop first, or where.

Minnesota all in on ‘pop’

However, there’s no doubt that “pop” is king in Minnesota. Our love affair with the term is reflected in countless surveys done by research groups, bloggers, etc. Those surveys often produce maps of the country showing where words are used to describe soft drinks. "Pop" is still used a lot in the Midwest and Northwest. And a lot of those maps show there's little variation in Minnesota.

The map below does show one pocket of the state, the Lake of the Woods area, which has an apparent preference for “other.” To get an answer on what that mysterious term might be, we called some convenience stores there and emailed audience members who live in the area. However, most of those who responded said that “pop” is still the favorite, despite what the map indicates.

A map of the United States with lots of colors.
This map comparing which terms are used for soft drinks across the country shows how popular the word "pop" is in Minnesota.
Courtesy of Matthew T. Campbell

Elsewhere in the country, “soda” is used a lot in Northeast and in the Southwest. "Coke" is used a lot in the Southeast, and not surprisingly, the research says that's because the Coca-Cola company is based in Atlanta.

Getting back to this region, Michael Linn, a retired linguistics professor from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, agrees it's a term mostly associated with the northern half of the country. Aside from its Scandinavian roots, he said Minnesota historically has adopted its speaking cues from other northern states based on geography and from where other people were moving to the state.

So, if you're to accept that "pop" started in Detroit or Erie, it makes sense that it flowed to Minnesota. And as to why it hasn't gone out of style here, Linn said the only explanation we can draw from is that it's a classic case of regional ownership of an expression.

He said even if an item has a formal name, you want to sound more like your neighbors when talking about it, as opposed to how someone else describes it thousands of miles away.

"If the people around us are speaking pop, we'll use the term pop. And in one area of America, pop can be thought of as prestigious, and other areas can be thought of as nonprestigious," Linn said.

And as we know, Minnesotans can be a little defensive about their dialect, and letting another regional term takeover might feel like an insult.

However, there are those few outliers in Minnesota like Mark Lazarchic, who said he named his store "Blue Sun Soda" because the word "pop" doesn't appeal to him.

"People tell us all the time, 'You're in Minnesota, you should be calling it pop,' but I don't care. I think soda sounds better,” he said.

As Lazarchic suggests, he might be part of a small group in Minnesota on this debate.

The future of ‘pop’ in MN

Despite Minnesota's tendency to use the term, researchers with the Dictionary of American Regional English tell us that we could see a shift here.

When the dictionary group did its first survey on the topic nearly 50 years ago, half of the country was using the word "pop." But their latest survey indicates that the number is now down to 25 percent, again, with the Upper Midwest making up a big portion of that.

But in Wisconsin, use of the word "soda" has been creeping into the Milwaukee-area. These researchers say as populations shift around more, language use for certain regions will adopt different styles. In 2017, Minnesota experienced a net positive both international and domestic migration in nearly 20 years.

So, if that pattern sticks, the Minnesota region might see diminished use of a host of terms, not just "pop."

Have a question about life in Minnesota? Submit your question here!

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