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Tuesday | October 21 | 2014

How a Soft Drink Became Quebec's Homegrown Insult

Among the plethora of ethnic insults that traffic in food—Germans as “krauts,” say, or Irish people as “potato eaters”—“pepsi” deserves special mention. It’s the only slur I know that is based on a beverage. The lexicography team for the Canadian Oxford Dictionary tell me the epithet “pepsi” derives from the belief, first held by Quebec anglos in the late forties, that their French-speaking counterparts swilled Pepsi because they were too poor to afford Coke (which was marginally more expensive). While Pepsi’s early marketing did promote itself as the more economical alternative—“Twice as much for a nickel, too / Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you”—impecunious Québécois of yore were probably imbibing Kik, which was the cheapest postwar cola available.

In any case, growing up in Montreal, I first heard the term “pepsi” used to describe French Canadians in the late fifties. English Canadians outside Quebec may have referred to them as “pea soup,” but “pepsi” was our private moniker for those people who lived east of the Main. You need to remember that, back then, the two solitudes did not interact a hell of a lot. Sometimes we even called them “pepsi may wests,” as May West was the brand name of a locally made cream-filled white cake covered in dark chocolate and supposedly popular among French Canadians. This was also the closest the expression ever got to the food-as-abuse convention.

The French really couldn’t win with us—if they weren’t drinking cheap pop, they were eating poorly. According to a joke circulating at the time, a French Canadian was a “pepsi” because a bottle of Pepsi had nothing from the neck up (that this was standard with all soft drinks didn’t seem to register with me or any of my cohorts). In the early seventies, the term became more widely known both by francophones and anglophones living outside of Quebec. Back home, “pepsi” morphed among the Montreal anglo cognoscenti into “pepper”—an insult partially derived from another pop product, Dr. Pepper, back then available seemingly only in dépanneurs.

Sometime in the eighties, I started to hear French Canadians say things like, “Il est un vrai pepsi.” Being a discerning bloke, I sensed this designation was being used to impugn the aesthetic sensibility of some bumpkin hailing from Chibougamau or the Gaspé peninsula. But given Pepsi’s wildly popular (and, to this day, ongoing) advertising campaign featuring local comedian Claude Meunier, I wouldn’t be surprised if “vrai pepsi” hasn’t started to evolve into a half-teasing, half-cherished label. That Meunier’s most enduring character from these ads is a spaced-out hockey player points to 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.