At some point in my grasping of the English language, the verb “to drink” got attached to “soup,” and I’ve been drinking soup ever since. This stood uncorrected for years, until a college friend snickered and suggested only fools drink soup. He was adamant: People eat soup, dummy.
But to me, “eating soup” sounds off. Perhaps it’s my Chinese upbringing; most of our soups are clear and thin, not chunky and thick and made from cheese. In fact, Cantonese uses the verb “to drink” to articulate the consumption of soups. Shouldn’t it be that way in English as well?
A few weeks ago when I brought this up to our ace copy editors, we couldn’t come to a consensus. We decided the proper verb usage requires additional context, dependent on viscosity (consommé vs. gumbo) or vessel (cup vs. bowl). But even that didn’t solve the issue of why more people seem to prefer “eat” over “drink.” So we went to the experts.
“My gut feelings on soup: If you’re using a spoon and scooping it out of a bowl, I would go with ‘eat.’ If you’re picking up the bowl and putting your mouth on it to get at that soup, that’s ‘drinking,’” said Kory Stamper, a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster, and author of Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. “I wonder if your use of ‘drink’ is more to do with how you get the soup into your mouth than what the soup is made out of?”
Notably, Campbell’s “Soup On The Go” line—served in microwavable cups, and therefore an obvious candidate for arguing that one drinks soup—sidesteps the entire debate, instead using “enjoy” and “sippable” in its marketing copy. So does anyone “drink” soup?
We consulted the Corpus Of Contemporary American English, a database of language usage that culls everything from TV transcripts to academic journals to tabloid newspapers. According to it, the verbs most associated with soup were, overwhelmingly, “eat” and “have.” After that, there is a wide gulf in frequency before you get to “drink,” “sip,” and “slurp,” way down in that middle pack of usage. Even farther down the list, you’ll find “consume,” “enjoy,” “savor” and—Stamper’s favorite—“bolt.”
While it’s perhaps not surprising that Americans prefer “eat,” it is interesting that “have” is placed so high. On the one hand, “have soup” feels like a cop-out. It doesn’t refer to the physical act of consumption—more the intention of consumption. But at the same time, the vagueness of “have” might point to people’s unease of using “to eat” with soup, despite its commonality. This suggests that, deep down, most people recognize that saying “eat soup” feels slightly off, yet they do it anyway. What’s clear from all my research is, when it comes to drinking soup, I’m just a fool.