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shameless pleading

Spider (float)

Great moments in antipodean product naming.

Dear Word Detective: My question is this: for as long as I’ve known them, soft drink floats have been called “spiders” in Australia (perhaps elsewhere in the world as well) and I was wondering if you could track down the reason WHY they’re called “spiders.” — David.

That’s a great question, and perfectly timed as well, because today is opening day of spider season here at Go Figure Farm (“When the weather warms, beware what swarms”). After fifteen years here, I’ve become somewhat used to the little nippers, but I still take a powder when I notice a cat staring at the ceiling above my head. Probably the best reason to have cats.

Spiders are, of course, arachnids of the order Araneae, having eight legs, fangs (often poisonous) and, in many cases, the ability to spin webs of varying sophistication. The word “spider” itself comes from the Middle English “spithre,” derived from Old English “spinnan,” meaning “to spin.” Other arachnids include mites, ticks, scorpions and “Harvestmen” (Opiliones), also known as “daddy longlegs,” which are not spiders but are (take it from me) incredibly stupid. We get these things by the dozens in our house every fall, and all you can do is pick them up gently and toss them out the door.

I had never heard of an ice cream float being called a “spider,” but neither have I ever been to Australia. Nothing against Australia, you understand; it’s just I don’t like airplanes and I’m a lousy swimmer. Fortunately, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) has heard the term, and dates its first appearance in print to the mid-19th century (“They asked us what we would have to drink; we had a spider each.” 1854).

There’s a catch to this example, however, and it applies to all such uses of “spider” in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. A “spider” at that time was an alcoholic drink made from lemonade and brandy (or similar ingredients) (“The favourite tipple of the bushman was mixed brandy and ginger beer — a ‘spider’, as it was called.” 1888). The kind of “spider” involving a scoop of ice cream in a glass of either soda or seltzer with flavoring (called, respectively, a “float” and an “ice cream soda” in most of the US) didn’t make it into print until 1941 (“‘You’ve had your drink, so now you’ve got to buy us all a spider at Smith’s’ … I didn’t want to go back and sit in Smith’s and drink silly coloured muck with ice-cream floating in it.”).

There are various theories floating around about the origin of “spider” in the “ice cream soda” sense, the most plausible involving the “spidery” appearance of the ice cream as it slowly dissolves. But I think it’s more likely that the dessert drink simply got its name by allusion to the “two things mixed together” alcoholic drink. That, of course, raises the question of where the bar drink got its name.

One of the earliest (1859) citations for the term in the OED offers an explanation while noting then current names for the drink: “Shandy-gaff, or spiders, — the latter to clear their throats of flies as they said.” The joke of swallowing a spider to catch a fly previously swallowed is found in a fairly famous children’s song (“There Was Once an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly,” recorded by Burl Ives in 1953), but it’s likely that the idea is much, much older. In any case, the hot, dry climate of the Australian outback, and the attendant flies, almost certainly explain both the name and the popularity of these liquid “spiders.”

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