Iced tea or ice tea?

Jan 9, 2012 by

Recently, when looking at the menu of a local Bay Area eatery that markets itself as “the Farm of the Future”, a forward-looking, innovative place for Silicon Valley geeks, I noticed an item in their beverage list: “Iced Tea”. Not “Ice Tea”. And the reason that this is worth noting is that iced tea is the older, more conservative form, whereas ice tea is the newer (if still rarer) form. So shouldn’t the people running “the Farm of the Future” use ice tea, I thought?

But let’s back up for a minute. As it turns out, ice(d) tea is not the only expression that started its life in a fuller form ending in -ed. Skim milk is milk that has been skimmed, wax paper is paper that has been waxed, and roast beef is beef that has been roasted. Even popcorn is just corn that has been popped. But today, these products are typically referred to by the newer, reduced form that has lost its participial -ed. To confirm that the newer form has won over in these expressions, I went online and did some googling (that’s a new word too!). On December 15, 2011, a search for skim milk came up with 5,830,000 hits, compared to 2,260,000 hits for skimmed milk. Similarly, wax paper came up with 3,150,000 hits, compared to 1,770,000 hits for waxed paper. The corresponding figures for roast beef and roasted beef are 12,000,000 and 1,240,000 hits. And popcorn was nearly 260 times more common that popped corn. But the one item where the newer, reduced form has clearly won over the older, fuller form is… ice cream! My Google search came up with 309,000,000 hits for the reduced form, whereas the search for the corresponding older/fuller form iced cream came up with zero hits! Whoever screams for “iced cream” anymore?! Except perhaps Montgomery Burns, a character from the animated television series The Simpsons, who is given to expressing dated humor, making references to pre-1950 popular culture, and aspiring to apply obsolete technology to everyday life.

This time, Montgomery Burns really used an obsolete expression, as even the menu for Mrs. Cleveland’s Wedding Lunch on June 4th, 1886, recorded in the White House Cookbook, lists “Fancy Ice-cream”.

While skim milk, wax paper, roast beef and popcorn all managed to lose their participial -ed (to some extent), other expressions are still more commonly used with the older/fuller form. For example, whipped cream is still more common that whip cream: Google search brought up 17,800,000 and 4,020,000 hits, respectively. Similarly, creamed corn is still more common that cream corn: the Google search figures are 2,280,000 and 1,260,000 hits, respectively. Curiously, a Google Image search for labels for Creamed Corn brought up scores of images, whereas Cream Corn appeared only on one label, and even that was from a Spanish-language brand.

Which brings me back to iced tea vs. ice tea. The older form with the -ed is still slightly more common that the newer, reduced form: the corresponding Google search figures are 16,000,000 and 11,200,000 hits, respectively. But a Google Image search for labels revealed many labels featuring both expressions. Curiously, Lipton brand has both Iced Tea and Ice Tea (see images below).


In fact, what we have here is not just variability of usage, but an ongoing change, as I’ve implied throughout this post. To show this, I have been tracking the use of boxed set vs. box set by using Google searches from time to time. Note that the total number of hits for both forms has increased 165-fold in the last decade due to the growth of online commerce: most hits have to do with buying box(ed) sets of CDs or DVDs. Therefore, it is more useful to look at the proportion of, say, box set in the total number of hits at any given time. In January 2001, box set was found in 59% of hits; a year later in 66%. In January 2004 it is up to 68% and by April 2010 the newer form is found in 82% of hits. My most recent figure for June 2011 is 93%. As you can see, the newer form has gradually but unstoppably grown in popularity, all but pushing the older form out of existence. It remains to be seen if boxed set will fall by the wayside the same way that iced cream did.


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  • Jlawler

    Note that -eds between stops get dropped most often. [paptkorn], with three different stops in a row, is perhaps the best example — [ptk] is a hard cluster to pronounce, rather like the [ksθs] in sixths that nobody ever pronounces with [θ].

    • This is an excellent point, John! skim milk may also be an assimilation of sorts, though it is harder to argue this for cases like roast beef as the -ed form would insert an epenthetic vowel and thus break up a cluster.

  • Brad

    Perhaps people are avoiding “ice tea” because it is too similar to the unfortunate former rapper and now Law and Order star “Ice-T.”

    • That’s an excellent point! I haven’t thought of that even though I am a huge Law and Order fan… 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Try looking the changes up on the Google n-gram viewer:
    “Ice tea” is still a minority use (at least in books), but it soared starting in the early 1960s. “Waxed paper” was much more common until about 1980, when “wax paper” caught up. ( )

    These are, of course, book uses, which are more conservative than spoken use or use in advertising material.

    • This is an excellent tool, thank you for bringing it up — but as you point out, NGrams show the use in books, which is more conservative than the use in spoken language. It may also be the case that the newer forms catch up in spoken language because of the otherwise difficult clusters, as pointed out by Jlawler in the comments above. Of course, this consideration would not apply in written language… And it would be interesting to see if a search of a truly spoken corpus would bring up different results from Google searches that I report in this post.

  • Hugh K

    In the UK we never use the expression ‘skim milk’ – it’s always skimmed.

    • Thank you for sharing this information, Hugh! In fact, when I talked about this in class today, one of the students who happens to be from the UK confirmed this.

  • Dm

    Regular Google web search readily substitutes grammatical forms; one can find a lot of hits for scramble eggs, mash potatoes, or refry beans, but at a closer look, the hits turn out to have -eds

    • Good point, thank you! I have heard people say things like “mash potatoes”, “bake potatoes”, “refry beans”, but curiously not “scramble eggs”. Maybe I just didn’t pay attention, or maybe the /d/ is more likely to be retained just before a vowel? I am not sure.

  • Anonymous

    Popcorn refers to both the white fluffy substance served at movie theaters and elsewhere, and also to a particular variety of maize plant and its seeds. The latter is not “popped corn”, as it has not yet been popped, and so shouldn’t rate a past participle ending. This may explain the vast disproportion in the two uses – if one word is to serve for the seeds before and after popping, “popcorn” is better than “popped corn”.

    • Interesting point, Anthony! I didn’t realize that the unpopped seads were “popcorn” too — there’s always something new to learn!

      • WNCKen

        And one more thing about corn: Orville Reddenbocker (sp?) was famous for calling his product “popping corn,” which I’ve never heard used elsewhere, but might be the technically correct name for the unpopped product? I have a flair for adding completely unnecessary observations to the conversation.

        • I never expected to find out so much new information about my favorite snack! 🙂