In June of 1888, a man named Hugh McIntire was arrested for a minor heist that would become a major footnote in Boston etymology.
McIntire was pinched at a store on Lowell Street for the alleged larceny of raisins, sugar, and “10 bottles of tonic.”
The incident warranted a brief item in the “Boston Daily Globe” — sandwiched between briefs about two boys fighting on Atlantic Avenue and a couple getting into a “Saturday night row” at a home on Hanover Street — but was linguistically significant for the city of Boston. That’s because it marked, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English, the first appearance in print of what would become a curious Bostonism — the use of the word “tonic” to describe a carbonated soft drink.
As the rest of the country divided into “soda” and “pop,” “tonic” enjoyed a century-long run in Eastern Massachusetts as the predominant term used to describe all the fizzy concoctions of the day. This despite the fact that “tonic” was already the name of a specific beverage, a clear liquid made of soda, sugar, and quinine, originally developed as a defense against malaria, whose flavor was so bitter that it actually improved with the addition of gin.
One-hundred-and-thirty years after McIntire’s arrest, in May of 2018, a Globe reporter undertook an experiment to answer the question: What do you get in 2018 when you ask for a tonic in Boston? Would people know what I was talking about, or would I be looked at like I had three heads? The answers: Yes. And yes.
The quest began at the Roche Brothers in West Roxbury, which was famous for having an entire “Tonic Aisle” at its old location just up the street, according to City Councilor Matt O’Malley, who bagged groceries there as a teenager.
“Can you point me toward the tonic aisle?” I asked the two women working behind the cheese counter.
The first looked at me like she was trying to figure out if I was speaking English, until the second, older woman leaned past her colleague and said “Aisle 7, hun.”
On the way there, I asked a man stocking Raisin Bran the same question. “Tonic is Aisle 7,” he said without looking up, and so I was feeling confident that tonic had survived in West Roxbury, until I arrived at aisle 7 and found plenty of carbonated soft drinks.
But I also found tonic water. We’ll call that inconclusive.
I walked around the corner to the Westbury, an old-school restaurant with a small lunch counter just inside the door. I sat on a stool, and ordered a “small tonic” from a 30-something woman turned her head sideways like she did not understand the words coming out of my mouth. Just then, an older woman named Nancy Slyne came around the corner from the kitchen and stepped in for her younger colleague.
“Do you want Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite?” she said gesturing toward the fountain machine.
The younger woman, who said she was from Albania, looked dumbfounded.
“In Europe, we have a drink called tonic. Here you mean tonic everything?” She threw up her hands and went into the kitchen.
Next I headed to the Pleasant Cafe in Roslindale, another old-school place known for its pizza. I took a seat at the bar, and said “Can I just get a tonic, please?’
The bartender barely acknowledged me, continuing to argue with the only other customer, an older guy at the other end of the bar, about some story in the Boston Herald. As they bantered, the bartender, Mark Molina, scooped some ice into a mug, poured Coke over it, and slid it down to me without a word.
When I told him he had passed my experiment with flying colors, he seemed almost confused. “Weren’t you asking for a Coke? I’m not going to say ‘pop.’ Not around here. It’s a tonic. Isn’t that what it’s called?”
Indeed, it is even on the restaurant menu. Tonic. $1.50.
At Richy’s in Hyde Park, another lunch counter that’s been there since 1954, I sat and asked for a tonic and a 53-year-old woman named Paula Ferzoco kind of gave me the once over — I was wearing a South Boston Pop Warner T-shirt, to help my cause — and then pointed over my shoulder and said they had Pepsi cans in the cooler for a dollar.
When I explained what I was up to, she laughed. “I used to call it tonic, but then I changed to soda because I was in Disney like 30 years ago and I asked for a tonic and they gave me tonic water.” Ferzoco said she knew what I was asking for, but it was rare to hear it nowadays.
Doyle’s Cafe, the legendary Jamaica Plain watering hole, also passed the test.
“What kind of tonic?” bartender Bob Donato, 65, said when I ordered. “You want Coke, ginger ale, 7-Up?”
The same happened at the Eire Pub in Dorchester, where an older man with a thick Irish brogue knew exactly what I was asking for, and said that people still ordered a tonic all the time, expecting a soda.
But the real shock came at Sullivan’s at Castle Island. I had high hopes there, because my first job as a teenager was working the “tonic machine” at Sully’s, pouring fizzy drinks on the fly.
For this leg of the experiment, I stopped and picked up my dad, and when we arrived at Sullivan’s we went to two different registers. I ordered from Chris Lane, who has been working there since long before my summer behind the counter in 1990.
“Can I get a small tonic?” I asked.
“Do you want regular or diet?” he responded without hesitation.
At the next register, my father, with his thick Boston accent, was being rung up by a teenager. When he asked for a small tonic, he got a confused look.
“A small tonic,” my dad repeated.
We paid, stepped to the side, and looked at our receipts. He had been charged for a kid’s soda water.
Tonic, it appears, has an age, not a geography. I had targeted the old-school joints, those places that hadn’t changed much in tone since the days when I was a kid. But what about the new places, the ever-increasing number of fancy restaurants that are choking out the old?
For that, I ended my day with two friends in Charlestown, at Legal Oysteria. It almost seemed pointless to run the experiment in a place like this, but my friend stopped the waitress and asked her anyway.
“What would you bring us if we ordered a tonic?” he said.
“A tonic water?” she replied, looking at us suspiciously. “Why, what would you want me to bring you?”
The strange look continued.
“In what part of the country is tonic a word for soda?”
Here. Or, maybe there. Or maybe yesteryear. It all depends on who you ask.Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.