Favorite soda pops have unique histories

Jim Lee: Local Columnist

I often wonder how and why some things get their names. For example, how do parents dream up some of those monikers for their helpless-to-do-anything-about-it offspring, and why do they afflict their descendants with labels that cause schoolyard fisticuffs and lifelong humiliation?

And what about those weird names for planets? Why is the planet Venus named after the Roman goddess of love when the place is about as inviting as skinny dipping in a lava flow? It’s something like 800 degrees without a cold beer in sight, or even so much as a soft drink.

And this cleverly slides us into the topic of today’s sermon, friends and neighbors: the crazy brand names of favorite American wet sugar concoctions: Coke, Pepsi, 7UP, and Dr Pepper.

Three of these drinks came out of the medical/pharmaceutical business. Each of them is carbonated. Only one was originally a cola, even though two are called colas. The oldest of the four drinks is probably a surprise. One of them is consumed cheerfully in great quantities by Notary Public Janet Sprague while I look on with gustatory horror. She defiantly pops the tab and actually drinks that awful stuff. Oh well.

Invented by Dr. John Pemberton of Atlanta in 1886, Coca-Cola is probably the best known of the four top soft drinks. It’s named after its original two major ingredients, extracts of cocaine (later claimed to be “spent coca leaves”) and African kola nuts providing caffeine. Of course cocaine or other illegal ingredients are assumed absent these days.
Pepsi-Cola was invented in Bern, N.C., by pharmacist Caleb D. Bradham and was at first known as Brad’s Drink. Nobody knows exactly when, but probably in 1898. Although some disagree, the “cola” in the name was to make it sound like the popular Coca-Cola rather than from the use of kola nuts or caffeine. The other main ingredient (until 1923) was pepsin, an enzyme that helps digestion.

The third drink, 7UP, came from advertising executive C.L. Grigg back in 1929. He started with Howdy Orange nine years earlier, but it didn’t catch on. So he created Bib-Lab Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda. Customers didn’t like the name, so the drink soon became 7UP. A lot of speculation has accompanied the name of this caffeine-free drink. It possibly came from its blend of seven natural flavors. Some say Grigg saw a “7 u” cattle brand. Others claim he thought of the name while playing dice. Take your pick.

Dr Pepper does not have a period after the Dr. That takes care of the first misconception. It is not cola flavored. It is not root beer, black cherry, or any other single flavor. It has no prune juice. It does have 23 fruit flavors, Madagascar spices, and distilled water — according to people who know more than I do. It was first concocted by pharmacist Charles Alderton in Morrison’s Old Corner Drug Store in Waco, Texas. The year was 1885. Alderton named the drink after his previous employer, Dr. Charles Pepper, a Civil War surgeon who owned a pharmacy in Rural Retreat, Va. The period after the Dr was dropped in 1950 for legibility.

All this is quite interesting, but which one does Sprague drink? I have to leave that a mystery so I don’t get flogged by the brand-name police. You can now answer any other question about America’s favorite soft drinks, though. Ain’t that nice?

Until next week, happy drinking, my friends — and happy birthday, Janet.