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Cultural epithets inspired by traditional food and drink

November, 2010

pepsi noun (pl -sis) Cdn informal derogatory, a French Canadian (from the perceived Québécois preference for Pepsi-Cola). — Canadian Oxford Dictionary

iReferring to an ethnic group according to a real or supposed preference for some type of food is a time-honoured epithet, which hardly any ethnic group has escaped.

Hence, a German is a “Kraut,” an Italian is a “spaghetti bender,” a Jew is a “bagel dog,” a black person is a “watermelon,” an East Indian is a “fig gobbler,” a Queenslander is a “banana bender,” a Mexican is a “beaner,” a Frenchman is a “frog” and a Québécois is a “pea soup.” The French from France refer to people from England as “les rosbifs” notwithstanding that “roast beef” was a term English adopted from French.

Growing up in Montreal, I first heard “pepsi” as a derogatory term for a French-Canadian sometime in the late 1950s. In case you believe it was revolutionary in the art of derogation to label members of a group according to a beverage instead of a food preference, it is not. The term “Limey” to refer to Brits comes from the policy in the British navy to enforce the consumption of lime juice by sailors to prevent scurvy.

As the Canadian Oxford Dictionary points out, the epithet “pepsi” derives from the belief (held by Quebec anglos) that Québécois swilled Pepsi because they couldn’t afford the marginally more expensive Coke. While Pepsi’s early marketing did promote itself as the more economical choice – “Twice as much for a nickel too, Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you,” impecunious Québécois of that era were probably imbibing Kik Cola, which was the cheapest cola available during the ’50s and ’60s.

In any case, the designation “pepsi” became the epithet of choice among Montreal anglos to describe French-Canadians. Whereas English Canadians outside Quebec may have referred to one who spoke French as “pea soup” or “frog,” “pepsi” (and sometimes “gorf” – frog backwards), was another moniker to disparage the ethnic majority who tended to live east of St. Lawrence (anglophones of yore didn’t refer to it as St. Laurent). One has to remember that these were the days when the two solitudes did not interact a hell of a lot. Sometimes anglos called French Canadians “pepsi Mae Wests” – Mae West was the brand name of a locally made white cake with a cream filling that was covered in dark chocolate, that was also supposedly popular among French Canadians.

The Québécois couldn’t win with us. A sophomoric joke that made the rounds explained that French Canadians were called “pepsis” because a bottle of Pepsi had nothing from the neck up. The fact that this was standard for any soft drink didn’t seem to register with the joke-tellers. In the early ’70s, the term “pepsi” became more widely known both by francophones and anglos living outside of Quebec, and the term seemed to morph among the Montreal anglo cognoscenti into “pepper,” possibly due to the increasing popularity of the soft drink Dr. Pepper.

Sometime in the 1980s, I started to hear French Canadians say things like, “Il est un vrai pepsi.” Being a discerning bloke I sensed that this designation was being used to impugn the aesthetic sensibility of some yobo from a place like Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha! But since Pepsi Cola has been using popular author and humourist Claude Meunier as their Quebec spokesperson since the 1990s, I wouldn’t be surprised if the expression vrai pepsi evolves into a half-teasing, half-cherished designation. That Meunier’s most enduring character from these ads is a zonked hockey player highlights the fact that the company’s success ­– Pepsi is said to outsell Coke two to one in Quebec – comes from promoting the idea of being able to laugh at yourself, of taking pride in yourself as a culture. Just as Québécois now embrace Pepsi as their brand, maybe they now can embrace “pepsi” as their slang.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.



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