Last updated: May 29. 2014 11:46AM - 375 Views
By Sarah Allen Contributing Columnist

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One guaranteed way to start a discussion is to ask this seemingly simple question: What do you call carbonated soft drinks? Is it “pop,” “soda,” or “Coke?”

Being the radical person I am, I’ve always combined two of the above, referring to it as “soda pop.” Of course, everyone has their own way of describing soda-pop, and most people will defend theirs as the “right way.”

I have often written about words and language. They have fascinated me for as long as I can remember (in fact, my parents have told me that when I was a toddler, I had a habit of staring wide-eyed at the credits following movies). And, in recent years, I have been known, mid-conversation, to tell someone that I like a word he or she has used.

It makes sense that I would like words — they are the center of both my fun and my work. But, recently, I’ve been thinking about a word that proves that everybody cares about language.

That word is “colloquialism” (which, let’s face it, is a lot of fun to say).

A colloquialism is basically a word that is common in day-to-day language, and that is often very specific to certain regions — such as the never-ending “pop” versus “soda” versus “Coke” debate.

The Midwest primarily uses “pop,” according to a study by Matthew Campbell and Professor Greg Plumb of East Central University in Oklahoma. The Northeastern coast and the West Coast tend to call it “soda.” And the South refers to it as “Coke” (even if it’s not actually Coca-Cola).

What’s really funny, though, is how a conversation is inevitable the minute someone says “pop” in soda territory, or vice versa.

I’ve had that experience time and again, though not with carbonated beverages. For me, it always happens whenever I’m with someone at the grocery store. We get to the car with a cart laden with sacks, and I always tell them to open the ….

I bet you thought I was going to say “trunk.” Most people in this area call it that. But, in my family, we’ve always referred to it as the “boot.”

It never fails, however, that the minute I let that infamous “b”-word slip, the person I’m with turns around, like he’s been jolted with electricity; raises his eyebrows; and says, “You want me to put them where?”

I suppose it’s a pretty funny mental picture, stuffing bag after bag of groceries into winter footwear.

I’ve been told using “boot” instead of “trunk” has British roots and, to be honest, there are so many differences between British and American words that calling both of them English is beyond confusing.

A few examples: cheeky (flippant), collywobbles (extreme queasiness from stress), knackered (very tired), shirty (ill-tempered), rubbish (terrible), and wonky (unstable).

I can’t help but think how much fun “collywobbles” would be to say.

With globalization, we’ve had to get used to different colloquialisms across cultures, even if we speak the same language. I know I’ve encountered that time and again in some of my favorite stories, namely the Harry Potter books.

When I was about 12 years old, I was reading the latest installment, “Order of the Phoenix,” when I came across a conversation that made me stop and run to Google.

Harry was in Professor McGonagall’s office, and she had just offered him a ginger biscuit.

What sort of biscuit, I wondered, would be ginger-flavored? That’s so strange. Maybe it’s a wizard thing…. I eventually realized that what Brits call “biscuits,” we call “cookies.”

Sadly, there was no magic involved, just miscommunication.

Though, I could argue that these colloquialisms are somewhat magical. The word itself even sounds a bit like a spell.

Once, years and years and years ago, Americans probably referred to cookies as biscuits, too. (After all, many of our ancestors came from England.) When did we start calling them cookies? And what makes some of us use “boot” rather than “trunk?” And how did soda pop come to have so many different names?

And, most importantly, why are we so interested in these words?

Because we are. These colloquialisms aren’t just for English professors (or, in my case, quiet young women who collect words like others do baseball cards). No, these disparities make nearly everyone stop for a moment and wonder.

The longer a language exists, the more it changes. Some changes are universal, others are distinct to certain areas. And that, to me, is amazing simply because it shows how time, experience and culture can be used as molds.

And, if our language — something we use every day — can change, then that means so many other things can change, too. Perhaps not quickly, but eventually.

Of course, it could be asked: What should we change? Should we be less selfish? Less violent? Less stubborn?

I don’t know. But I do know that we, as a whole, have changed and always are changing in those ways and so many more. It may be difficult to see sometimes, but I resolutely believe that it is true.

“We imagine that human nature doesn’t change,” scholar Theodore Zeldin once said. “We like to say that, but I don’t think it’s true because we have, in the course of the centuries, altered ourselves.”

And language is just one indicator of that simple — albeit, sometimes unbelievable — fact.

And, if we’d just take a moment to sit back with a soda pop and consider it, I’m sure, more often than not, we’d see the progress rather than the defeats, and some of those nasty collywobbles we face every day would start to fade.

Sarah Allen writes a column for Civitas Media’s Hillsboro Times-Gazette in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @SarahAllenHTG.

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