Soda vs. Pop & the boundaries of the Midwest

By Razib Khan | November 5, 2010 1:07 pm

William Easterly asserts that David Brooks illustrates how clueless Easterners can be without local knowledge about My Midwest:

A frequent theme in this blog is the importance of local knowledge for development. David Brooks helpfully illustrated in his column today on my home region the Midwest. He brilliantly demonstrates how outsiders can get lost in the jungle in a region not their own.

Brooks’ Midwest is:

that region of America that starts in central New York and Pennsylvania and then stretches out through Ohio and Indiana before spreading out to include Wisconsin and Arkansas.

Mr. Brooks is apparently unaware from his vantage point on the Far Eastern Coastal Rim that central New York is still in the East, not the Midwest. And there has never been a single Midwesterner in two centuries who ever thought they were in the same region as Arkansas.

total-county2I grant the point about Arkansas. But I think Brooks may be on more solid ground about central New York and Pennsylvania. On a biographical note I’ve lived in upstate New York, but near the border with New England (this is why I am a Celtics fan). I’ve also lived in western Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh (I’m a Steeler’s fan, and suspicious of the Browns). As a matter of geography Pittsburgh and Buffalo are Northeastern cities, but as a matter of cultural sensibility they’re classic Rustbelt metropolises. They are technically outside the Midwest, but they are most definitely part of the Great Lakes Region. Syracuse may be a liminal in terms of identity, but I don’t think Brooks is totally off base assuming that its sensibility is more with the Midwest than the East.

Local knowledge matters. Most Americans are conscious of the fact that though Florida is in the South, in reality it is the northern part of Florida which is of the South. Fewer Americans are aware of the fact that though southern Illinois is in the Midwest its cultural sensibilities reflect the South more than the North. There are historical reasons for this. The southern two thirds of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio were settled by whites from the South; Scots-Irish from the Border States, but also aristocratic low-country gentleman such as William Henry Harrison. In contrast, the northern portions of Illinois, the Upper Midwestern states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio’s northern Western Reserve region, were populated by Yankees. Importantly these Yankees may have ultimately had their origins in New England, but secondarily many of them were from the Yankee de facto colony of western New York.

The historical connection between western New York and the Midwest can be traced out in the early Mormon migration. Palmyra, New York, Kirtland, Ohio, and Independence, Missouri. The Mormons were mostly Yankees of New England stock, and they followed the paths which other Yankees had already trod. Notably in Missouri some of their conflicts with the earlier white population was explicitly sectional, as the locals were by origin Southerners who disliked the Mormons as Yankee cultists.

But to resolve the issue about where the Midwest starts, I think you need a real social metric.


Obviously the map doesn’t perfectly match our preconceived categories of region. But the shift in terminology in western New York and Pennsylvania is very striking, and something people in the are are very conscious of. I haven’t heard of a good explanation why coastal Wisconsin and a penumbra around St. Louis stands out anomalously in the Midwest. Though it has been pointed out to me that the original elite of St. Louis had pretty strong New England connections.


Comments (49)

  1. Chris

    For my parents wedding many many years ago my mother had “Pop” on the list to buy and my father thought she meant popcorn. He always called it soda. He was from the South side of Chicago and my mother was on the North side.

  2. I can buy the western bits of Pennsylvania as midwest, sure, but not New York. To me the midwest is just Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa. You know… the states with schools in the Big 10. 😉 Although I would allow it if anyone wanted to include Missouri, and you could make a case for Kentucky and West Virginia, although culturally they are more southern despite being on the very geographic edge of what can be considered the South.

    Interestingly I am from the deepest Appalachian roots of southern Ohio, but I say ‘soda’, much to the chagrin of my family members. I picked it up in junior high from a friend who was a recent import from Los Angeles.

  3. Brett

    I haven’t heard of a good explanation why coastal Wisconsin and a penumbra around St. Louis stands out anomalously in the Midwest.

    It might be related to the fact that the major brewing centres of the area are based out of Milwaukee and St. Louis, although I’m not sure if I could explain why that matters.

  4. Tom

    I suspect “Case Western Reserve region” should just be Western Reserve region. The Case family probably wouldn’t mind their own region though.

  5. That northern part of Ohio is actually just the Western Reserve– it was the Western Reserve of Connecticut– Case Western Reserve (University) is the name of my alma matter, and is a combination of the old Western Reserve University (named for the region) and the Case Institute (of? for?) Technology (named for the founder).

  6. benjamin

    I’ve lived in Pittsburgh for a decade, coming from Ohio and Michigan, and have always considered it to be midwest. I was really surprised, though, by how many of my friends there thought of it as “east coast.” They were mostly transplants as well, and I wonder how the people who grew up there see themselves.

    go steelers!

  7. It might be related to the fact that the major brewing centres of the area are based out of Milwaukee and St. Louis, although I’m not sure if I could explain why that matters.

    yeah, have no idea why this would matter, but it crossed my mind too.

  8. Most of my current friends (including my boyfriend) went to Case, which is apparently an excellent school because it churns out the smartest mofos I’ve ever met.

  9. dave chamberlin

    It makes me wonder if various illegal drugs have different slang names in various parts of the country. A map of the generic names for marijuana would be interesting.

  10. G Hats

    I live in Vancouver, BC, Canada and here we all call it Pop. Always have. Nobody calls it soda around here

  11. Chris T

    I’m from the Milwaukee area and have never really understood why the coast differs from the rest of the state or Illinois. My mom attempted to get me to say ‘pop’ growing up, but to no avail. Everyone else around me called it ‘soda’.

    There aren’t too many Wisconsinites that would consider Arkansas ‘midwest’ or even Missouri. I’ve personally always considered Ohio intermediate between Midwest and East Coast.

    On a more amusing note, I once had someone from New Mexico try to convince me they were in the ‘Midwest’.

  12. I find this discussion of pop vs. soda vs. coke hilarious. Speaking as a Pennsylvania native, who has lived in northeast PA, Western PA, and central PA, I can say that it depends on where you’re from w/r/t to whether or not you consider it the Midwest or the East Coast, and whether or not you call it soda or pop—or soda pop. (I don’t know how that one got left out. :))

    I’ll take this opportunity to talk about Pennsylvania as I, and many other PA natives, do: a MidAtlantic state. That term distinguishes it from the Midwest, which, as a whole, it certainly is not; as well as removing it from the members-only eponymous East Coast cabal. See:

    I can see why people like to assign it to the Midwest because it contains a large swath of the Ohio Valley region, but geographically, it’s a huge state, and that renders the generalization both gross and inaccurate. Admittedly, it’s a somewhat schizophrenic state, what with Philadelphia at one end and Pittsburgh at the other and mostly farmland in between.

    True, the MidAtlantic states are somewhat of a (surprisingly unknown) hodgepodge, nevertheless, this term accurately represents the messy heterogeneous lot of them, Pennsylvania included.

    David Brooks doesn’t have a clue.

  13. Phenol

    I’m a native Southern Californian (born 1943). Growing up we always called it a “soft drink” or, often, just “coke”. If someone asked for a coke, the response was “what kind?” I have no southern ancestry (my parents were born in the Midwest but grew up in the greater Los Angeles area). Over the years it’s changed and now, as the map indicates, nearly everyone here uses “soda”.

  14. Anthony

    Similarly to “Case Western Reserve”, “upstate western New York” is redundant. Depending where you’re from, upstate New York starts somewhere between Poughkeepsie and 110th Street.

  15. Admittedly, it’s a somewhat schizophrenic state, what with Philadelphia at one end and Pittsburgh at the other and mostly farmland in between.

    pittsburgh, philly, and alabama in between. though to be honest in my cross-state treks it is always noticeable how empty the middle of the state really is. sorry state college.

  16. TRJc

    I grew up in Kansas. I now live in Ohio. Ohio definitely is a Great Lakes state, it is not part of the Midwest. Neither is New York, nor Pennsylvania. New York is the East. Pennsylvania is the East. Western New York is not the East Coast, a subset of the East along the Atlantic coast, but it is still the East. A Midwestern state is a state that is part of the Great Plains, and that has never been a part of the Confederacy. The native ecology of western New York State and western Pennsylvania, is forest, not the grasslands of the Plains.

    Incidentally, growing up in Kansas I did say Pop, but that has nothing to do with it being part of the Midwest.

  17. And that helps to explain why so many people think Philadelphia is the capitol of PA. Harrisburg is a lovely, small town capitol situated along the mighty Susquehanna.

    If nothing else, PA has some terrific native people’s mountain and river names, and history: and

  18. bioIgnoramus

    How odd that there is (or was) a comparable variation of words in Britain – including pop, juice and lemonade. Just coincidence I suppose.

  19. interesting that there are High Priests of proper doctrine on what is, and isn’t, midwest. since northern minnesota and most of wisconsin are naturally forested, i guess they’re not midwestern 🙂

    btw, instead of top-down categories, i tend to think in terms of pairwise comparisons. e.g., does a person in pittsburgh have more in common with someone from toledo or philadelphia? i would say toledo. how about pittsburgh-milwaukie vs. pittsburgh-philadelphia. i think perhaps now you got a case where it might be philly, or not determinative. my point is that the there’s a cline, but a rapid shift in central PA/western NY. from pittsburgh to iowa it’s a gradual shift. just like the topography.

  20. TRJc, I am going to have to respectfully disagree. Ask anyone who has lived in Ohio their whole life; Ohio is *definitely* the midwest.

    Razib, I have almost thrown punches over proper classification of such things.

  21. Pohranicni Straze

    I showed the map to my wife, who had an additional data point to add. She reports that in Thailand, the generic term is also “coke” and asking for a “soda” will get you soda water.

  22. Razib, I have almost thrown punches over proper classification of such things.

    well, u r from an appalachian cultural background. u ppl are ‘born fighting’ 😉

  23. Most people wouldn’t be able to guess that I’m Appalachian just from talking to me, since I am well-educated and have since lost my accent. However, my sophomore year of college I had a friend from Chicago who thought I was from the Deep South until I told her I’d lived in Ohio my whole life.

    Also there are some Appalachianisms I’ll never be able to get rid of. Like “I tell you what!” which comes out sounding like “I tayul you whut!”

  24. i retain a few remnants of upper hudson valley pronunciations despite having spent most of my life on the west coast now. i didn’t even know about these relics until some friends pointed them out (e.g., i say horror like i’m from boston or something).

  25. James

    Western Pennsylvania for the most part drains to the Mississippi (the Ohio river starts in Pittsburgh) so geographically it really is part of the Midwest. I’d go for defining it as Midwesterrn though the extreme SW portion of PA is also pretty Appalachian hillbilly.

    Arkansas and the Ozark part of Missouri are certainly not in the Midwest but Minnesota and Iowa certainly are.

    I moved from Chicago to Philadelphia in 1959 and part of the many cultural shocks to my Midwestern sensibilities was that no one knew what I was talking about when I requested a bottle of pop (that and the way folks in the East mispronounced the word orange as ahrange!)

    BTW WTF is going on in Alaska sodapop-wise? They say “coke” in the Aleutians!!!

  26. I think that would lead to an overly-expansive definition of the Midwest.

    If you’re wondering what “other” responses gave, you can see them here.

  27. (that and the way folks in the East mispronounced the word orange as ahrange!)

    yeah, i do that too i think. i haven’t lived in east of the appalachians since i was 12, so it’s peculiar i have that tick (1 year in western pennsylvania, then west coast all the way).

  28. As someone born and raised in the “soda speaking” region near Lake Michigan, I consider the Midwest to encompass the Northwest Territory+Minnesota+Iowa–essentially the states that border Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie + Iowa. Some of the areas bordering those states may be considered part of the midwest (northern Missouri, for example, but not whole states), but past that, you’re stretching it. So, to the Kansan above, I consider Ohio to have more claim to be midwestern than Kansas (though I know that for some reason Kansans like to cling to that label, even though they are clearly a Great Plains state).

    Of course, southeastern Wisconsin isn’t only strange for being a Midwestern area that uses “soda” instead of “pop”–it also is known for its use of the word “bubbler” instead of what others may term a “water fountain”. As for myself, I prefer to use “drinking fountain” (after all, the decorative fountains in parks spout water, don’t they?).

  29. My favorite linguistic marker is between Minnesotans and non-Minnesotans: Minnesotans play “Duck, Duck, Grey Duck” and everyone else plays “Duck, Duck, Goose.” I have yet to find an exception to this rule and I will defend “Grey Duck” to the death.

    As a Minnesotan near the Western edge of the Midwest, I don’t really consider states like Ohio or Indiana as a part of “my region.” I generally perceive the Midwest as MN, WI, MI, IA, and the Dakotas. However, my perspective could be further skewed by the fact that I have lived in St. Paul/Minneapolis my whole life and the farmlands are just foreign to me and so find I have little in common even with Iowa. There is definitely more of a Minnesota-Wisconsin kinship than with other states, although eastern Wisconsin probably does not feel close to Minnesota. This is evidenced by the two separate NFL rivalries: MN Vikings vs GB Packers, and GB Packers vs Chicago Bears. There is not much of a Vikings-Bears rivalry.

    To be honest though, St. Paul/Minneapolis just feels more or less like an island. Other cities and states just don’t enter the mind much here, I don’t think.

    Also, I’m a Minnesotan who says pop. I went to Milwaukee once and when I ordered pop I got very strange looks…

  30. In his book The Nine Nations of North America, Joel Garreau did not believe that Ohio and Indiana were part of the same region as Minnesota, either. But the best evidence for Ohio being part of the Midwest was an observation made by my significant other when we pulled into a restaurant parking lot in Columbus after driving all morning from Washington. “I can tell we’re in the Midwest,” he said, “because everyone is so fat…” This was in 1994, before people starting blimping out nationwide…

  31. carpetanuiq

    Regarding these issues there is a nice old book from Joel Garreau about the USA cultural geography ( This method has been applied to other countries (i.e. China: (

    Though European, i´ve had the chance to travel in almost of american and chinese “nations” and i must say that i found these maps quite accurate.

  32. Huxley

    I grew up in St. Louis and it is most definitely soda there. We very much looked down on people who said pop as country bumpkin types. I am not sure why, other than St. Louis has historically been a bit of an Eastern old money “colony” with lots of ties to New York and Boston (ie George Bush Sr.’s mother is from St. Louis and he has cousins there) and with lots of people having gone to Ivy League schools. That has changed somewhat in the last 20-30 years though.

  33. Chris T

    Meng- I lived in Texas for three years when I was young and kept the ‘water fountain’ terminology even after moving to Wisconsin. ‘Bubbler’ never sounded quite right to me.

    Kele- I don’t think the Dakotas have enough people to be classified in any region. 🙂

  34. Notice that the St. Louis soda bubble (as in Vess Soda, the Billion Bubble Beverage) corresponds pretty closely to the service area of KMOX AM 1120.

  35. James

    Joel Garreua is all wet when it comes to “The Foundry.” He needs to include St. Louis, Peoria, the Quad Cities, Duluth and Minneapolis as well as Hartford and New Haven.

    And if he considers Lake Tahoe to be part of “Ecotopia” then it should extend to Bend, Spokane, and most of Idaho. Plus Seattle has always been the de facto capital.

    PS – our constantly bubbling water fountains here in Portland are called “bubblers!”

  36. Scott

    In regards to “the Foundry” that groups Ohio with NY, I’ve lived in St Louis, MO, Columbus, OH, and Long Island, NY.

    St Louis and Columbus are many times more similar to each other than Long Island (and Metro NYC) is to either Columbus or St Louis.

  37. Violet in Twilight

    I second Seattle to be the capital of Ecotopia. San Francisco seems to be so out of touch with the rest of it.

  38. I have a question related to my comment above. Do cities have more in common with the suburban/rural areas surrounding them or more in common with other cities? Would Minneapolis-Saint Paul have more in common with Milwaukee or Chicago than with western Minnesota or is there considerable influence from the surrounding countryside?

  39. A much more interesting map (than soda vs. pop) would show what part of the country people consider themselves to be in. No how, no way is Pennsylvania in the Midwest. It’s part of the megalopolis, it’s one of the 13 founding colonies, it’s loaded with Poles and Italians that would be out of place in corn and wheat fields, and it’s covered with forested mountains – it doesn’t even LOOK like the Midwest. Puh-leeze! By these standards, Virginia is in the Midwest too! But the point is well-made that even in our own countries we don’t always know how people regard their region. On a cross-country road-trip I quizzed people in a bar in Scottsbluff, Nebraska if they were part of the Midwest. Answer: yes, of course. How about Wyoming, not far from where we were sitting? Yes, at least the eastern half of it (though this provoked heated discussion among the patrons). I would never have guessed Wyoming as part of the Midwest. Part of the problem is that state boundaries don’t follow the physical geography that partly defines our concepts. The eastern third of Colorado is flat, arid grassland that sure looks like the Midwest. Case in point, I live in California, which is in – what region of the country? Damp redwood forests at the same latitude as Manhattan are Southwest? Again, puh-leeze. You would have to put CA in both Southwest and Pacific Northwest.

  40. Sandgroper

    I realize this is totally irrelevant, but Nury Vittachi ( claimed he met an Indian guy who, well, apparently a lot of Indians took their names from their occupations. And this guy’s ancestor in colonial India used to be the guy who collected up the empty soft drink bottles to cash them in for the deposit on the bottles.

    And his family name was Sodabottlepopbottlewallah.

    If this is in any way offensive, don’t blame me, blame Nury. He’s used to it.

  41. Will S.

    Throughout Canada, it’s called pop; no regional variation.

  42. Kele, I would think that cities have more in common with other cities in the region rather than the surrounding rural areas. I’m thinking of my own city, which is nothing like the rural areas about an hour away, but rather has more in common with other large cities in the state and surrounding states.

  43. As a kid in Minnesota I played Duck, Duck, Goose. Never Grey Duck. Red Rover was another popular one.

  44. When I moved to Pennsylvania as a Penn State student, I got a job in a fast food restaurant. When folks came in asking for “pop” and “soda,” I was clueless. I had never heard of birch beer either. I am from Virginia – we have Coke and root beer.

    BTW, Virginia is definitely in the South, but I am not so sure about Northern Virginia…

  45. Sam

    Just BTWs, I know I’m coming to the thread late, but old school Bostonites (my grandparents included) fall completely off this map, calling any soft drink “tonic,” quinine or no.

  46. Anthony

    When Garreau wrote “Nine Nations”, San Francisco was definitely more in tune with the rest of Ecotopia than it is today. Lake Tahoe is a suburb of San Francisco, so it belongs, while Bend and Spokane probably don’t. Lake Tahoe is very environmentally conscious, in a way that even Carson City and Reno are not, though I’m not sure how the year-round population feels about those issues.

  47. Meng & others – Very interesting that Wisconsinites say “Bubbler” as well as “Soda”. As a native Bostonian, I thought “Bubbler” (or ‘bubblah’ in our enlightened patois) was a unique New England term. Maybe Milwaukee follows more New England speech patterns?

    As far as regions: as a Bostonian living in Rochester, NY, I definitely consider the city midwestern. It follows basically the same historical patterns as anywhere else in the Rust Belt. However, most locals don’t consider themselves either Midwesterners or Easterners. We also don’t consider ourselves “Upstate” New York. We are Western New York, which is distinct from Upstate. Likewise, people in Syracuse call themselves “Central New York”. As you can see on the map, Syracuse is a “Soda” city and Rochester is a “Pop” city.

    I’m not surprised that the Kansan above calls himself Midwestern. My experience is that Americans from Ohio to Colorado (at least!) like to think of themselves as Midwestern, and like to draw the lines of their region so they are close to the middle of it, and so it shares their cultural/geographical characteristics. Hence, a Kansan thinks Midwest means plains and fields, whereas most Midwesterners would identify it more with rusting cities and old river ports.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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