Why are soft drinks, such as lemonade etc., called soft drinks?

  • 4
    I've never heard of lemonade referred to as a soft drink, only various carbonated drinks (sodas). Where is lemonade called a soft drink? Br.E.?
    – Doc
    May 8, 2014 at 19:47
  • 6
    @Doc: Here are 552 written instances of "soft drinks such as lemonade", and toggling between US/UK corpuses on this NGram suggests the usage is in fact twice as common in AmE as in BrE. Conversely, although I'm perfectly familiar with hard liquor, I must admit it has more of an "American" feel to me. May 8, 2014 at 20:05
  • @FumbleFingers Interesting. I wonder if it's a regional thing or maybe I'm just oblivious to it's use.
    – Doc
    May 8, 2014 at 20:27
  • 4
    Lemonade and its differing uses from region to region are the subject of a whole other question.
    – choster
    May 8, 2014 at 20:33
  • 1
    There two types of apple cider: Soft & Hard. May 8, 2014 at 23:12

4 Answers 4


This made me think of why hard drinks are alcoholic. I have found that

big or hearty drink of liquor (1620s)

is probably the origin of hard liquor.

liquor: Narrowed sense of "fermented or distilled drink" (especially wine) first recorded c.1300. To liquor up "get drunk" is from 1845.

Hard meaning intoxicating, spiritous, 'strong'" sense, surprisingly, dates at least from 1879 (see edit below supporting its earlier use), from Boston Times about someone brought up on charges:

Before the court, for selling hard liquor, when he had only a licence for selling ale.

For Australia and New Zealand, it's recorded in 1890.

As for soft, "of beverages, non-alcoholic, non-spiritous," there is a citation from 1880 in the OED online, and a quote from 1891 by a brigade commander, General Robinson, that of the "Canteen" or "Post Exchange" system.

Each regiment had a "canteen" of its own, where the men could buy, at a price which would give a small profit, soft drinks, beer, cigars, pipes, etc.

There is a British Soft Drinks History devoted to soft drinks. They state that soft was first described as small, and note that a tombstone of 1764 records

Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier,
Who caught his death by drinking cold small beer,
Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall
And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none

Edited to note: StonyB has found an 1843 book (British?) with a very interesting phrase. While reflecting on the perils of idleness, Luke Hansard states that two men could be persuades to fight (for entertainment) by use of "soft sawder" (which actually means flattery) and hard liquor. So clearly, hard for strong alcoholic beverages was in use by the early 1840s. To StonyB: Great find!

  • 2
    +1 OED 1 claims hard liquor to be an Americanism, but on Google Books I found this from an 1843 English source: If nothing else serves our turn we seek out two fellows who, like ourselves, want employment sadly, and by dint of a £10 note, some "soft sawder" and hard liquor, we persuade them to stand and pummel and be pummeled until one is carried out of the ring a mass of living jelly ... " May 8, 2014 at 20:48
  • 1
    "Who caught his death by drinking cold small beer,..." Small beer usually has a much lower alcohol content. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Small_beer
    – IconDaemon
    May 8, 2014 at 21:09
  • If I recall correctly there actually has been a brand of beer called "Strong".
    – Tonny
    May 8, 2014 at 21:21
  • 2
    My impression is that neither 'hard' nor 'liquor' are much used in Britain. In fact I had to check to make sure I was spelling 'liquor'correctly, as it is a word I never normally use. The regulatory laws in Britain break alcoholic drinks into 'beers' 'wines' and 'spirits'. The last, I assume to be what Americans call 'hard liquor'. There are drinks which do not fit conveniently into any of these categories, such as fortified wines like sherry and port, liqueurs etc. 'Ale' which was once synonymous with 'beer' nowadays tends to be used for 'real ale' i.e. cask-fermented, non-pasteurised.
    – WS2
    May 8, 2014 at 21:38
  • @BraddSzonye I don't think we call non-alcoholic 'cider' 'soft'. 'Non' or 'low-alcohol cider', is called just that, similarly with 'low-alcohol beer'. We don't talk about 'soft cider' or 'soft beer'. As regards other non-alcoholic apple drinks, we tend to use their brand names e.g 'Appletiser'.
    – WS2
    May 9, 2014 at 7:32

I have found this article about the origin of the name:

The term “soft drink” ... is now typically used exclusively for flavored carbonated beverages. This is actually due to advertising. Flavored carbonated beverage makers were having a hard time creating national advertisements due to the fact that what you call their product varies from place to place. For instance, in parts of the United States and Canada, flavored carbonated beverages are referred to as “pop”; in other parts “soda”; in yet other parts “coke”; and there are a variety of other names commonly used as well. Then if we go international with the advertisements, in England these drinks are called “fizzy drinks”; in Ireland sometimes “minerals”. To account for the fact that they can’t refer to their product in the generic sense on national advertisements, because of these varied terms, these manufactures have chosen the term “soft drink” to be more or less a universal term for flavored carbonated beverages.

(emphasis mine)

  • What is the asterisk at the end for? Otherwise, great answer.
    – trysis
    May 9, 2014 at 0:14
  • 1
    Do you have a reference for this?
    – user867
    May 9, 2014 at 3:53
  • Yes, click on the red words 'soft drink'
    – user66974
    May 9, 2014 at 4:38
  • 3
    I've seen many menus that include fruit juices and lemonade in the "soft drink" list. In my experience, the term is mainly used to distinguish them from alcoholic beverages, not specifically for carbonated beverages.
    – Barmar
    May 13, 2014 at 0:09

Because beverage that contain alcohol are "hard" drinks.

Consider hard cider:

In the United States and some parts of Canada, the alcoholic beverage discussed in this article is commonly known as "hard cider", while simply "cider" often refers to non-alcoholic unfiltered apple juice.

  • 2
    This does raise the question why hard beverages are alcoholic (other than hard water of course).
    – choster
    May 8, 2014 at 19:41
  • 1
    It does indeed. All I have been able to find on it is what you can intuit. They are hard because they can hit you hard. And a lot of people talking about hard liquor vs weaker alcohol. If anyone can find an actual etymology on that, I'd vote their answer up over mine.
    – frances
    May 8, 2014 at 19:44

The word for "juice" in German is "saft." I think it has probably been anglicized to soft in English, and the originally meaning of juice drink has altered over time.

  • 4
    It would be interesting if there is a reference for it. "I think" answers are considered doubtful here.
    – GEdgar
    Feb 28, 2015 at 18:05
  • Etymonline says:Soft In reference to drinks, "non-alcoholic" from 1880. Its origins: from West Germanic *samfti, from Proto-Germanic samftijaz "level, even, smooth, gentle, soft"*
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 28, 2015 at 22:47

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