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In Boston, ‘tonic’ gives way to ‘soda’

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Tonic, soda, or pop?

MENDON - The Midwest always called it “pop.’’ In the South, “Coke’’ was used generically, to mean Coke and anything like it. And the rest of the Northeast is definitely “soda’’ country.

But in Boston, and only in Boston, it’s “tonic.’’ Or at least it was.

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As a term for a carbonated soft drink, “tonic’’ has lived its life almost exclusively within Interstate 495, one of the hall-of-fame Bostonisms. Despite the pressure from its more established national competitors, the tonic-soda line held strong for generations, a linguistic divide that defined not only those committed to the famed Boston dialect, but also its own particular brand of English.

Dorchester and South Boston and West Roxbury were definitely “tonic’’ country. So were places like Everett and Lynn, Waltham, and Walpole. But there was always a blend - “tonic,’’ like a strong accent, was working-class Boston. The Back Bay did not use the word.

But times have changed, the language has evolved, and Boston is not as insular and parochial as it once was. The best available data says that only 1 in 5 people in the state still use “tonic. “Soda’’ has marched to the coast.

Now, for the first time, there is a glimpse of the tonic-soda line before the age of mass communication dulled such regional colloquialisms, thanks to a new dictionary based on old information.

The Dictionary of American Regional English, based largely on a massive national linguistic survey conducted in the late 1960s, took so long to produce that the man who conceived it, Fred Cassidy, died after almost 40 years of work when he was still at the letter “O.’’ But this month, Harvard University Press published the fifth and final volume, Sl-Z, which includes the first definitions for both “tonic’’ and “soda.’’

“It has become stigmatized . . . as markers of a dialect that people don’t want to be associated with.’

John McCarthy UMass professor
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Among the many things that make the Dictionary of American Regional English so interesting to linguists - and one of the reason it took so long to produce - is that many of the words are also mapped by usage. “Tonic,’’ even then, was just a few dots covering Eastern Massachusetts and parts of Maine and New Hampshire, but in those areas it was dominant. Its boundary fits almost like a jigsaw piece into the hole on the “soda’’ map.

“Tonic is something that was centered in Boston, and was part of the Boston culture, but it faded out slowly as people are less affected by the pull of the center,’’ said George Goebel, an assistant editor of the dictionary. “That’s a typical pattern for things like this.’’

But where was the actual tonic-soda line?

Goebel took a closer look at the data, and while there were a few communities where people had said both “tonic’’ and “soda,’’ the place that seemed to be right on the line, with “tonic’’ country to one side and the rest of America on the other, was the town of Mendon.

Just outside I-495, which is often cited as the boundary of “Greater Boston,’’ Mendon is an in-between place, near Milford but mostly on its own in that area where Central Massachusetts meets Rhode Island, deep into the 508 area code. It is best known as the home of the Southwick Zoo.

On a recent day in Mendon, a Globe reporter walked the old tonic-soda line, in pursuit of a carbonated soft drink, and found what is really the story of “tonic’’ vs. “soda’’ anywhere in the state: that there is no longer a line, there is an age.

“It’s something I hear my friends’ parents say, but never my friends,’’ said Andy Gabbard, who is 17 and has a mohawk and works at Best Buy and was pretty pumped to learn that Mendon was the center of anything.

Up the street at the bar of the New England Steak and Seafood restaurant, Tim Clark said it was definitely “tonic’’ when he was a child, “whether it was Coca-Cola or orange.’’ When he was 11, his family moved from Mendon to Oklahoma, deep behind the “pop’’ line, and he remembers that being one of the big culture clashes.

But he is 48 now, he says, and that was long ago. His children all say “soda.’’ At this bar, he would only order tonic if he was having vodka. If you want a Coke, the bartender says, ask for a Coke. Ordering a tonic will get you fluorescent quinine.

As a blanket term for carbonated soft drinks, “tonic’’ is a word that buys into a promise of what the beverage will do, the idea that it has some medicinal value. But it was long ago overrun by “soda,’’ which describes more what the beverage is like. “Pop,’’ a term for the sound made when a bottle was opened and the chief national competitor of “soda,’’ never came any closer than western New York state.

But “tonic’’ is far from dead. Just over 1 in 5 people in Massachusetts said they still use the word, according to almost 7,000 from the state who participated in a survey on the website popvssoda.com. But not so long ago, it was almost exclusive, a proud defining characteristic of a city that likes its proud defining characteristics.

There remain tiny pockets of usage left in places like South Boston and Hyde Park and Weymouth, but a survey of students at Boston Latin School a few years ago found that only 22 percent even knew the word, and nearly all said it was through an older generation.

John McCarthy, a distinguished professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a scholar on the subject of Boston language, said that when he first started polling students in the early 1990s about “tonic,’’ other than a few from urban Boston, the students said it was their parents who used the word. Now, he said, it was their grandparents.

“It has become stigmatized, like ‘dungarees’ and the broad-A sound, as markers of a dialect that people don’t want to be associated with,’’ McCarthy said. “Another is that it gets associated with an older generation, and that makes it uncool.’’

In 1888, the Boston Daily Globe wrote of a man, Hugh McIntire, who was arrested for the alleged larceny of 10 bottles of tonic and a quantity of raisins and sugar. It is the earliest citation in the definition, and stems from an age where such drinks were sold for their alleged medicinal powers.

When the last citation of “tonic’’ will occur remains to be seen. The Dictionary of American Regional English, in its entirety, will move online very soon, and keep evolving, along with the language, which is driven by the young and preserved by the old.

In Mendon, though, things have changed; it is a “soda’’ town now, said John Romiglio, who owns the indoor skate park in town.

He looked around at the handful of youths on bikes hitting the ramps. “They wouldn’t know,’’ he said. But he had a hunch: If there was anyone who might still use “tonic,’’ Romiglio said, it would be in the Mendon Country Gift Barn. He was right.

“I never really thought about it, but I guess I do say ‘tonic,’ ’’ said Jack Ober, and for that he was proud. Ober is 78, has owned the shop for half his life, and after a full day on the old tonic-soda line and an informal survey of Dunkin’ Donuts customers by the teenage girl working the drive-up window, Ober was the only “tonic’’ drinker to be found in Mendon.

That is a tiny dot on the linguistic map of America, but a dot just the same. And so for now, just as it was in the late 1960s, Mendon remains somewhere between Boston and everywhere else.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.
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