Where did the term 'bubbler' come from, and are we the only ones who say it?
Why don't Milwaukee's downtown streets match up? Are Wisconsin's winters really getting worse? Where did Laverne and Shirley live?
Sometimes, you have a question about where you live that needs answering.
That's why we recently launched What the Wisconsin?, where experts are ready to take on questions large and small about our city and our state. And when we can, we'll turn those answers into stories.
Fittingly, the first question sent to What the Wisconsin? is about the first thing that people from the rest of the country ask about us.
Where did the term 'bubbler' that only we use for a water fountain come from?
Drinking fountains go back to ancient times, but the gush of interest in cleaner drinking water in cities in the late 19th century led to a boom in drinking fountains just about everywhere — including Wisconsin.
They began popping up in Milwaukee in the late 1880s, but, at least in the pages of The Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel, they were always called “drinking fountains.”
The device attached to a faucet so that humans could drink from it does make the water "bubble" forth for drinking.
The first references to drinking fountains as bubblers in Milwaukee newspapers turn up in 1910, when they're called "sanitary bubblers," "fountain bubblers" or "water bubblers." The prefixes fell away by the early 1920s.
Blame it on Kohler (maybe)
So, why did "bubbler" catch on here as the word for a drinking fountain? For years, it's been assumed there was a Kohler connection.
According to "The Dictionary of American Regional English," the massive dialect dictionary produced over half a century at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of the first uses of "bubbler" in connection with a drinking fountain was in material from Kohler Co. in Sheboygan County in 1914, citing a Kohler fountain that was "fitted with … nickel-plated brass self-closing bubbling valve … adjustable for a continuous flow of water. … Can also furnish … continuous flow bubbler with above fountain."
Note that it's an adjective there, not a noun.
Joan Houston Hall, former chief editor of the dictionary, told Wisconsin Public Radio in 2015 that "bubbler" usage "mirrors the marketing area of the Kohler Company of 1918 or so," chiefly in eastern Wisconsin, and especially in the southeastern corner of the state.
For years, there also was a story that Kohler actually coined the term "bubbler," reportedly trademarking the name in 1888. Only problem with that: As the Sheboygan Press reported in 2014, Kohler Co. didn't exist under that name until about 1900.
Although "bubbler" and "drinking fountain" seem to have been used interchangeably, "bubbler" is the word that stuck in Milwaukee's cranium — and, as important, in our self-identity. By the early 1960s, news reports highlighted the fact that calling a bubbler a bubbler was the sure sign of being a Milwaukeean.
"Why Milwaukee uses this term … is hard to say. Possibly it is a survival of the old German habit of making words sound like what they represent," the Racine Journal-Times wrote in a 1963 editorial reprinted in both The Journal and Sentinel. "But the word has a certain charm, and we hope Milwaukee keeps it."
We're not the only people who say 'bubbler'
But here's the kicker: It seems we aren't the only people who use "bubbler."
According to dialect maps put together in 2013 by Joshua Katz at the University of North Carolina, Rhode Island also says it. (No one seems sure why they say it, either.)
You know where else "bubbler" is big? Australia.
If a lively discussion on Reddit last year can be believed, folks in Queensland, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory — basically, most of the eastern half of the country, including cities such as Sydney and Canberra — are pro-bubbler.
But you never hear anyone connecting Aussies to bubblers. Milwaukee, on the other hand — bubblers are part of our image.
In 1983, a Journal reporter in Washington, D.C., was at the White House when Ray Donovan — Ronald Reagan's labor secretary, not the just-canceled TV series of the same name — gave credit where credit was due: "If you hear someone call a water fountain a bubbler, you can bet he's from Milwaukee."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the "Dictionary of American Regional English" was produced at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Contact Chris Foran at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @cforan12.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Why 'bubbler' is what a drinking fountain is called in Wisconsin