Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sweet or Unsweet

If you order iced tea in a restaurant in the south, you are likely to be asked, “Sweet or unsweet?”.  I am fairly certain that “unsweet”, in the sense of “not having sugar added”, is not really a word. I say that because my word processing program has it underlined in red, and when I look it up in my inline dictionary I get the answer “No entries found. Do you mean ‘unseat’?” Looking the word up on, I do get a definition:

unsweet adjective
1. (of champagne) moderately dry [syn: sec]
2. distasteful; "he found life unsweet"

I’m not sure either of these definitions fit iced tea, especially the second one, but you won’t convince anyone down south that the word they are looking for is “unsweetened”. Nonetheless, whenever I order iced tea in a restaurant, I specify “unsweetened” and add, “with no lemon” because I really don’t like lemon in my iced tea. Half the time it arrives with a lemon slice on the rim anyway, and then we have to do it all again. I suspect that in the restaurants we frequent, I am known as Her Again. Her Again is actually a good tipper, but it doesn’t matter, because most of the time my husband is paying for dinner. So I also suspect I get the same glass back minus the lemon slice. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone spit in it either, but I figure that’s why I have such a sturdy immune system.

I tell people that I live south of the tea line. In the north, at least when I was growing up in New York, if you asked for tea in a restaurant you would get a cup of hot tea, unless you specified iced tea. Down here, if you ask for tea in a restaurant, you get iced tea, unless you specify hot tea (which they might not even have). 

I ran into a similar distinction when I went to college in Buffalo, NY. Where I grew up, “soda” meant a carbonated beverage. In Buffalo, a carbonated beverage was “pop” and “soda” meant an ice cream soda. Down here, of course, a carbonated beverage is a Coke, or sometimes a cold drink.

I suspect in time “unsweet” for “unsweetened” will make its way into dictionaries. After all, it does fit a grammatical rule. I’m still going to take it with no lemon.


  1. Some good columns lately. Thanks.
    My husband just told me that the new nickname for Sarah Palin is Word Salad Wanda.

  2. That's interesting about 'pop' and 'soda'. All over Michigan it is 'pop'. I didn't realize it that there were other places it was called 'pop' besides Michigan, because everywhere else I've lived it has been either 'soda' or 'coke'.

    I first noticed the term 'unsweet' for unsweetened tea in the PG County part of Maryland about the time my 9yo was born. Before that tea was 'plain' or 'sweet'. I wonder where it came from...

  3. @Jenny - I am glad you are enjoying them. I hadn't heard "Word Salad Wanda". Usually I see "Snow Snooki".

    @cjmr - "Pop" for a soft drink seems to be a Midwestern or at least Great Lakes regional term. Buffalo is on Lake Erie, and the accent and culture has a lot more in common with Chicago and Michigan than with downstate NY.
    Now that I think about it, "unsweet tea" does seem to be a comparatively recent term.

  4. Where I was born, tea was either hot or cold, and always unsweetened. Where I live now, tea is always iced, always over-sweetened.

    Soft drinks were pop; here and now they're soda, I guess, or sometimes coke. Growing up, I don't remember calling them anything other than their brand names. (If I ask for Coke or Sundrop, please don't offer me a Pepsi or a Mountain Dew. It won't hurt your tip tho, because many don't understand the difference.)
    If I had to choose a generic name for pop, I guess it would be COLD DRINK, because I watch a lot of Cool Hand Luke.