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January 28, 2003

My recent quandary over the derivation of the term "soda jerk" has produced a wealth of information from helpful readers who understand my dilemma. This came up in a column that recalled the growing-up years in the City Drug Store, our family's business until the Great Depression claimed it as a victim. Somebody asked me where that job term came from, and I didn't have a clue, although I was proud to be one. Thanks to some friends out there, I now have a lot of answers.

David Bazzell did what I should have done - he called up information on the internet, then referred me to the same source. So now I can tell you how the U.S. Department of Labor describes my childhood occupation. Along with that is a reprint of offbeat news from the reliable old Associated Press, but the AP does not allow such material to be redistributed so I can only tell you in general terms what the amusing little article contains.

Briefly, the piece tells about Mr. Richard Huckriede, age 73, a present-day soda jerk in Greensburg, Kansas, who currently is celebrating fifty years as master of the soda fountain at the Hunter Drug Store. So esteemed is he by fellow townsfolk that money is being raised for a life-size cardboard cutout of Mr. Huckriede for an exhibit at the Kiowa County Museum. (As a sidelight, I did some figuring. I was jerking sodas at the City Drug in 1940. If the store and I had both survived, I would now have been serving up sodas and cherry limeades for at least sixty-two years, not counting time out for Army service in World War II. Personally, I don't think either one of us, the store or I, would have made it. But I digress.)

If you are REALLY interested, let me share the Department of Labor's job description for a fountain server. But first, other titles for the same job are: Fountain dispenser, ice cream dispenser, soda clerk, soda dispenser and soda jerker. Years ago the trade publication, Drug Topics, tried to introduce a title that was more "dignified" than soda jerk. Their proposed term was "fountaineer," but somehow that never caught on anywhere. So now, here's the Labor Department's job description:

"Prepares and serves soft drinks and ice cream dishes, such as ice cream sundaes, malted milks, sodas and fruitades, using memorized formulas and methods or following directions. Cleans glasses, dishes and fountain equipment and polishes metalwork on fountain. May prepare and serve sandwiches or order foods. May verify and total customer's bill, accept cash and make change." So you see, we really had lots of responsibilities.

Ed Malzahn also passed along a copy of a book, Horse Feathers & Other Curious Words, in which the author, Charles Earle Funk, author of Heavens to Betsy and A Hog on Ice, gives us many examples of words or phrases that have mysteriously slipped into everyday English language, through no fault of our own. Soda Jerker is one of those. The author's definition pretty well agrees with the Department of Labor's description, but he adds that in the mid-19th century, a "jerker" was an habitual drunkard. Thank goodness we no longer have to defend against that.

Thanks to friends who helped clear up this curious phrase.