Where is the bubbler? and other such baffling regionalisms

When I was in my twenties and began traveling around the country I quickly realized that you didn’t walk into a town to ask for the bubbler. 

If you did, someone would look at you quizzically and retort, “The bubbler? What are you talkin’ about?” 

Well, of course I was talking about a drinking fountain that didn’t send an arch of water into the air where it would be collected in a metal basin after you had turned a metal handle.  No, this was a metal or ceramic tower which had no handle, which in fact didn’t need a handle to turn on the water because the water constantly bubbled up through holes in the center of the basin at the top. You only needed to bend over, put your mouth over the bubbling stream and slurp it up.

Even though this was a big improvement over the tin cup people used to pass around at ye olde bucket of water, it was still of questionable hygiene. Today of course, the covid health czars would shut one of these babies down in a heartbeat, but since we did things like playing with lead paint chips and riding in cars without seatbelts, you never gave slurping the bubbler a second thought. They were in every park. They were seen as a respite from the heat while playing in the Milwaukee summers.

Now there are only two areas in the US where the term bubbler might seem familiar, and then, possibly only to a baby boomer. Besides southeastern Wisconsin, the drinking fountain is affectionately called “bubblah” by some Massachusetts area natives. Its charming moniker can also be heard in nearby Rhode Island. If you glanced at the map which indicates the areas where bubbler might still be a household name, (like Sheboygan, Wisconsin, home of Kohler Corporation ) you would be surprised at the tiny regions represented as well as the distance between them. The story goes that the unique fountain design was invented by an employee of the Kohler Co. and Kohler patented the design and began to sprinkle the surrounding Lake Michigan cities with the refreshing invention. However, Kohler claims that both these tales are tall. Regardless of where the name and invention actually started, one wonders, “How did the little gem get from Wisconsin all the way to its Eastern counterparts, that tiny Bastion of Bubblers in Brockton, MA or Barrington, RI”? And to make matters worse, the Easterners that use the “bubblah” are talking about the arched stream rather than the bubbling one in the bottom of the basin.

Well, after much research, I came up with no answers, nuthin’, nada. If you know the answers to this mystery, give a holler out to me, cuz I wanna know.

Now I am feeling wild and free with “the colorful word” on this post in anticipation of the crazy words we are about to discuss. Words like “yins” and “jimmies”, “pop” and “devil’s night.”

My source for all this was an article in the Readers’ Digest that I discovered in the doctor’s office which showed the US maps of what Americans say for “the colorful word” in their particular region. The source of this geographical linguistic palette is the fascinating, Speaking American, How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk, by Josh Katz.

The tiny area where people use the term “bubbler” is a purple swath on the east coast of Lake Michigan and the Northeast coast of MA and RI. As one looks through Katz’s book at the varied colors representing our favorite terms, we turn to another regionalism – “pop”. That was a strange word to call my soda. But if your relative from Michigan was here to visit, they would insist that’s what a carbonated beverage was called. “Jimmies” are the chocolate sprinkles that in name surpass the mundane chocolate sprinkles that adorn others’ cupcakes and ice cream. “Yins” are the “you guys” of Pennsylvania. “Yins, come on over here!”

Now, the little bugs that light up the early summer nights are claimed as “lightening bugs” by the Eastern US, whereas the Midwest and West elevate them to the poetic, fairylike “firefly”. Wisconsin is home to the city of Wauwatosa, the Native American word for this tiny electrified friend. It means “flash flash, fly away”.

The most startling of all the images captured in the lists of peculiar names has to be the American Southeastern names for the sun shining brightly while the rain pours down. Most Americans have no name for it. Some call it “sunshower.” But the residents of Louisiana and Georgia have dubbed it, “The Devil is beating his wife.” When this phenomenon of nature happens on a southern afternoon, you might hear someone drawl, “Well, the devil’s beatin’ his wife again.”

Apparently, this began in France or was it Hungary. But the strange circumstance has caused it to be labeled something akin to supernatural evil afoot in the world. In South Africa, this phenomenon is referred to as the monkey or fox getting married. And that would be strange indeed.