• Eric Fisher

Street Slang and the Soda Jerks

The Clarksvillian

Inspired as a nickname for the soda clerk who operated soda fountains as late as the 1950s, the “Soda Jerk” title was inspired by the jerking action a server used to swing the soda fountain handle back and forth when adding soda water to a fountain beverage. They prepared milkshakes and other treats using drink mixers (much like those still sold today) that feature spindles and agitators to fold air in for smooth and fluffy results served in tall glasses. Soda Jerks were charged not only with preparing delicious treats for customers, but with entertaining customers as well.

Soda diners may be all but dead in the United States today, but during the Great Depression they were on what seemed like every corner. What Bentley calls a “peculiarly American phenomenon,” these restaurants were temples of food, socialization — and slang.

Benjamin Silliman, a Yale chemistry professor, introduced carbonated soda water to America as early as 1806 in New Haven, CT home of Yale. It caught on quickly and, along with three partners, he began expanding into New York City and Baltimore. By the mid 1800s they knew they had a winner, especially with the creation of quick bite – light meals, where anyone could grab a quick sandwich along with a frozen delight. The idea of drug stores was pretty ingenious, since cola syrups were instilled with fizzy water and originally sold as digestives.

Most soda fountains stocked chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream along with chocolate, strawberry and marshmallow syrups. To top things off, crushed nuts and maraschino cherries added to the visual delight of those glorious concoctions. Hot fudge sundaes were created to serve on Sundays when religions forbade the sale of fizzy water, thus prohibiting the popular chocolate ice cream sodas from being served. The ice cream and syrup were not considered sinful, but the soda water wasn’t so fortunate.

Sadly, in the 1950s drug stores moved in the direction of self service, eliminating lunch counters and ice cream altogether, and fast food began to replace the lunch counter with hamburgers and shakes which bore little resemblance to their predecessors. Out with the old, in with the new as more and more space was needed for the hundreds of shelves displaying boxed and bottled products, replacing the soda jerks and less income-generating egg salad sandwiches.

With the changing times, history has still been not forgotten the soda jerks. Their legendarily playful twisting and creativity of words continues to linger, if not directly – indirectly, even in today’s culture.

Below is a compilation of some of the more common Soda Jerk lingo phrases to you may have heard back in the old days.

  • Baby (a glass of milk)

  • Black (cola)

  • Bottom (ice cream in a drink)

  • Brown (root beer)

  • Bucket of (several ingredients combined)

  • Cha (chocolate)

  • Chicago (pineapple juice or soda)

  • Concrete (a milkshake so thick it can be turned upside down and not drip)

  • Cow juice (milk)

  • Crash (cookie crumbs)

  • Draw one (coffee)

  • Draw one from the south (strong coffee)

  • Dust (malted milk powder)

  • Egg Cream (a chocolate soda with a dash of milk)

  • Fizz (a scoop of sherbet or sorbet)

  • Floater (a glass of malted milk with a scoop of ice cream)

  • Florida (orange)

  • Forty-one (lemons or lemonade)

  • Freak (orange flavored soda)

  • Freeze (ice cream)

  • Fuzzy (peaches)

  • Gravel (nuts)

  • Hang a Draw (glass of root beer)

  • Hang One (Coca-Cola®)

  • Heavy on the Hail (extra ice)

  • Hold the Hail (no ice)

  • Hot cha (hot chocolate)

  • In the hay (strawberry milkshake)

  • Java (coffee)

  • Mash one (mashed bananas)

  • Mud (chocolate ice cream)

  • Natural (7-Up®)

  • One on the country (yogurt or buttermilk)

  • Patch (strawberries)

  • Salties (peanuts)

  • Sand (sugar)

  • Shake one (make a milk shake)

  • Snowball (scoop of vanilla ice cream)

  • Spit in it (raspberries)

  • Spit on it (raspberries on top)

  • Squeeze one (orange juice)

  • Triple Threat (three scoops of ice cream)

  • Van (vanilla ice cream)

  • White cow (vanilla milkshake)

  • Winter (whipped cream)

  • Yip (an ice cream soda blended in a drink mixer)