As a boy growing up in Virginia, I said "Coke" as a generic term for all soft drinks.
"Do you want a Coke?"
"Get me a 7-Up."
I thought everyone spoke this way. Then, in my 20s, I moved to Philadelphia, where everyone said "soda." My three kids all say "soda."
In the mid-'90s, we spent a year in Ann Arbor, Mich., and people there said "pop," as in "Can I have a pop?" This sounded utterly strange.
So on my trip across America this summer, I asked people what they called soft drinks. I wanted to explore one of the remaining regional distinctions in America.
I had no idea that Pennsylvania is a border state, a bilingual state that appears to be divided right down the middle. Ed Rendell may carry the "soda" vote for governor (the Philadelphia area), but will he carry the "pop" people out west?
Wellsboro, for instance, in north-central Pennsylvania, is firmly in the soda camp. Brian Roslund, 18, who runs the On Track Café, the snack bar on board the Tioga Central Railroad, stocks more than a dozen varieties. "I call them sodas," he said. "Absolutely."
But travel 15 miles west to Galeton, and Trixie Blass, a secretary in the borough hall, will tell you: "Some people here call it soda. And there are people here who call it pop. I call it pop."
Go another 15 miles west: "In Smethport, we call it pop," said Pat Fay, who works in the borough hall in that small town.
By the time I arrived in Ebensburg, near the Ohio state line, I knew the answer before I asked the question: "Everyone says 'pop,' " said Julie Taylor, 18, whom I met at a Shell station.
Cleveland is clearly pop country. But at a Cleveland Indians game in July, I sat next to a beer drinker from Dayton, who called it Coke. And in the bleachers, I met a couple from Toledo, who said Toledo is pure pop country. (But they also called vacuum cleaners sweepers.)
In Medina, Ohio, 30 miles south of Cleveland, Lynn Chusgovich, desk manager at the Circle 6 Motel, was truly conflicted. "When I go to a restaurant," she said, "I order a soda. But when I go to the grocery story, I go to buy pop. I use both of them, but I think most people around here use pop."
Curious, I turned to an expert. On the Internet, I discovered Alan McConchie, 27, who has perhaps studied this issue more than anyone else.
He grew up in Bellingham, Wash. - pop country - but attended the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena - soda country.
"From the first day of freshman orientation, I started to ask everyone I met where they were from and what word they used, which had the added benefit of being a kind of icebreaker for a shy guy like myself," he said by telephone. (McConchie now lives in Upstate New York - soda country.)
"The project was a natural match for a longtime interest in both science and obscure geography," he said.
He created a Web site - http://www.ugcs.caltech.edu/~almccon/pop_soda/ - and asked Americans to respond with their preference and their zip code.
He has received more than 64,000 responses and created a color-coded map on his Web site.
"The map makes it pretty obvious that almost every place you'd think of as 'the South' says 'Coke,' " he said.
He found some fascinating exceptions: "West Virginia [soda] splitting off from Virginia [Coke], as it did during the Civil War, and the northern areas of Virginia filling up with the soda-speaking suburbs of Washington, D.C. Florida, too, is split evenly between Coke-speaking Southerners and soda-speaking immigrants from the Northeast, just as it was during the presidential election."
His theory is that Coke is big in the South because Coca-Cola is based in Atlanta. Pop owns the heartland, while soda is big in the media capitals of the Northeast and California.
McConchie added: "I've become so hyper-aware of pop vs. soda that nothing comes naturally anymore. Usually, I just blend in with whatever the locals say. When I first started the page, I was rabidly pro-pop, but now I feel like everybody's right - except the people who say 'Coke.' That's so wrong."
Donna Ramey, a waitress at the Bob Evans in Circleville, Ohio, asked me at dinner, "What can I get you, coffee or Coke?" And, of course, I thought she meant any soft drink. I thought I was in Coke country. But wasn't this the Midwest, not the South? When she came back, I asked her about her choice of words. "We're supposed to recommend a specific product," she said. "That's why I said 'Coke.' " I was crushed. Corporate America was ruining my survey.
All across the country to the Pacific Northwest, people drank pop.
Seattle was pop territory, though people in Oregon seemed a bit divided. In California, on the beach in Santa Monica, I was in overwhelmingly soda country again. After I returned a rented bicycle, the employee told me I was entitled to "a free soda" at the snack bar. It was music to my ears, hearing "soda" again.
But what I really wanted was a Coke.