Is it a Bubbler or a Drinking Fountain?

Author: Sean Christensen
University of Wisconsin- Whitewater

I posted an inquiry on the LINGUIST listing on the distribution of the word “bubbler” as a synonym for drinking fountain. Thanks to all who responded, which are too many to list. The Dictionary of American Regional English has also extensively investigated this word and it was my goal to gain more specific information than that supplied by DARE (for example, the regional distribution within Wisconsin.)

Here is a summary of my findings:

In Wisconsin, bubbler is used throughout the eastern half of the state, particularly along the coast of Lake Michigan and becomes less prominent the further west one travels. The “stronghold” of bubbler appears to be in Milwaukee and its suburbs. Milwaukee is also thought to be the geographic origin of bubbler, coined by the Kohler company in the early 1900’s.

My university (UW-Whitewater) appears to be in conflict over what to call drinking fountains. In one of our residence halls there is a sign asking residents to not use the drinking fountain as a garbage disposal. The word ‘drinking’ is crossed out, and ‘water’ is put in its place. Then ‘water’ and ‘fountain’ are crossed out, and ‘bubbler’ is put in their place. It goes to show you that people can be very loyal to their colloquialisms!

My research provided no evidence for the term’s use in Minnesota or Illinois, but I did find the word in use along the western part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (which borders Wisconsin’s bubbler-using region.) If bubbler is used anywhere else in the Midwest, its existence escaped my research. In fact, I found no evidence of the word’s use within the U.S. west of the Mississippi or south of the Ohio River.

The other region that uses the term includes the state of Rhode Island (where it is used exclusively by many speakers), far eastern Connecticut, and southeastern Massachusetts- including the Boston area. I had people from this region respond with amusement because they didn’t know the word was used anywhere outside of their area.

Lastly, and much to my surprise, bubbler is used in southeastern Australia- predominately in New South Wales (including Sydney and Canberra) and in portions of the provinces bordering New South Wales. The information on Australia is only based on a few responses, but there were some, especially in Sydney, who used bubbler exclusively while growing up. There were some from parts of Australia who had never heard the term before, so it does appear that it is also regionally distributed in Australia.

There were some who distinguished bubblers from drinking fountains. Some only called outside fountains, bubblers, while others vice versa. One only called non-refridgerating fountains, bubblers.

Drinking fountain seems to be the generic term that everyone is familiar with, whether they use it or not. Other synonyms are: water fountain, water cooler, fountain, and water bubbler. For what its worth, the only accounts I had of the term ‘water bubbler’ were among African Americans from Milwaukee (but this only included three people.) Just plain ‘fountain’ seemed to be the word of choice in northwestern Wisconsin, while drinking fountain and water fountain were used pretty interchangeably everywhere else.

As for its use in literature, the only printed documentation of bubbler I could find (under the given definition) was a 1985 Milwaukee Journal article which was about the word’s usage in Milwaukee.

I realize that some of my findings are inconsistent with DARE- I believe this is because my research was not nearly as thorough as DARE, and didn’t take into account historical usage, only current usage.

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