Linguistic Oversight

The first true failing of the recent "What Kind of English Do You Speak?" quiz bubbling up around the blogosphere is that it asks

Do you call it a
a. Drinking Fountain
b. Water Fountain

But doesn't include

c. Bubbler.

Bubbler is an intensely regional term whose usage, I believe, doesn't extend more than 50 miles in any direction beyond Milwaukee, Wisconsin. If you ask, "Is there a drinking fountain nearby?" they will gently correct you, saying, "Oh, you mean a bubbler," as though the "Milwaukeese" term is the common term and you are using wacky new slang.

Bubbler isn't slang—it's the real deal, and the term is old. For 18 years, I hadn't heard it called anything else by my classmates or their parents, or by mall clerks or gym teachers or bank tellers. Bubbler. I don't even know the origin of the term, but I do know that where I grew up there were a bevy of wild springs throughout the state forest, fonts you could see "bubbling up" out of the earth the same way, in other regions, you might enounter Black Gold.

Other funny Wisconsin language tic: There is no such thing as an ATM. I didn't know what that was until I moved to Minnesota (where "casserole" is strictly known as "hot dish"). In Wisconsin, all ATMs are TYME Machines, a quirky acronym that cleverly stands for "Take Your Money Everywhere."

Its usage ends when a teenage boy, trying to find cash to buy lunch in Minneapolis, asks everyone he sees: "Do you know where a TYME machine is?" And their puzzled, concerned faces: the precursor to Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite. The pity. The fear.


  1. Also -- I'm pretty sure that people 'round here call the night before Halloween "Beggar's Night", or something like that.

    Maybe not. It could just be my family; we have strange names for lots of things.

  2. Charles: This is fascinating. I've never heard of a "bubbler," though, in Seattle, for the World's Fair in the 60's, there was a "Bubbleator:" an elevator in the shape of a clear bubble going up one or two floors in the Food Court.

  3. Peter, funny story about the Seattle World's Fair in the 60s—my mom worked there! She is related to the man who introduced the Belgian waffle to the U.S., and she worked at his stand at the fair.

    She said Carol Channing gave her some rhinestones, and I think that's when she saw Elvis. Wacky, eh?

  4. Sorry to pollute this comment area, but did you really post an excerpt from 'Faded' last week? I memorized the entire song five years ago and now I missed my chance to put that knowledge to use. Dammit.

    I will make it up to you. I promise to. . . It's hard for me to say I'm sorry.

  5. A.D., you missed your chance! What a bummer—I wasn't sure you could get any dreamier and then you bust out this admission that you memorize lyrics from Canadian boy bands...?! Shoot, you had me at hello.

  6. Charlie, "bubbler" is also used in the northeast; my grandmother used to call it that all the time. Only it's pronounced "bubblah."

    We also called soda "tonic." I think this was specifically north of Boston.

  7. It's you cheeseheads who ruin the language for the rest of us. I mean, really: bubbler? There are no bubbles!

    My thread has snapped.

    But it snaps out of love, for sure.

  8. I call a water fountain a "scuttlebutt," but I also strictly refer to the bathroom as "the head."

  9. Charles: that is such a funny story about your mother and the World's Fair in Seattle. You have to write a poem about it.