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Etymological Cocktail

By Anatoly Liberman

If there can be a fruit and even a shrimp cocktail (let alone a cocktail of drugs), there can also be an etymological cocktail. In order to live up to the name of my story, I will concentrate on the word cocktail and speak about the ingenuity wasted on the discovery of its origin. The earliest dated citation of cocktail “an alcoholic drink” in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) goes back to 1809. The volume of the OED with the word cocktail appeared in 1893. The examples are preceded by the fateful comment: “A slang word, of which the real origin appears to be lost.” Why this comment is fateful will become clear toward the end. At the moment, we should keep in mind only one incontrovertible fact: cocktail, wherever its home might be, spread to the rest of the world from the United States.

As could be expected, folk etymology ran wild trying to explain where such a strange name for a beverage came from. “…the term was suggested by the shape which froth, as of a glass of porter, assumes when it flows over the sides of a tumbler containing the liquid effervescing.” Interesting, unless our froth effervesces elsewhere: “The old doctors had a habit of treating certain diseases of the throat with a pleasant liquid, applied with the tip of a long feather plucked from a cock’s tail, etc.” This was a nice habit, especially considering that the liquid poured down the patient’s willing throat “consisted of bitters, vermouth, and other appetizers.” On the other hand, it is quite possible that we owe the exotic name to Mexico: “The Aztec word for ‘pulque’ is pronounced much like octail, and General Scott’s troops called the liquor ‘cocktail’ and carried the word back to the United States.”

Alas and alack! Those who looked to Mexico for inspiration forgot that all things good to eat and drink were invented in France or under the influence of French-speakers. Coquetel (whatever its origin), we are now told, a mixed drink known in the vicinity of Bordeaux for centuries, was introduced to America by French officers during the Revolution (this piece of news, as we will see, does not rule out General Scott and his guzzlers), and, in addition (but this a different etymology), the first cocktails were served from eggcups (never mind the long feather plucked from a cock’s tail), and the French for “eggcup” is coquetier; the custom originated in New Orleans soon after 1800, a date that accords well with the Bordeaux hypothesis. Coquetels were, quite naturally, served from coquetiers, and one of those French words must have been the etymon of Engl. cocktail. That cocktail consisted of cognac, brandy, and bitters made from the inventor’s secret formula.

Do we have any evidence confirming the role of eggcups in the history of cocktail and the introduction of the French drink into the United States? Oops, as journalists who choose to be facetious say in such cases, is any evidence needed? What evidence? All this is common knowledge! But it is also common knowledge that there was something called cock ale “ale mixed with the jelly or minced meat of a boiled cock, besides other ingredients,” traced by the OED to the middle of the 17th century. This dainty went out of fashion in England but would have been the right thing for the colonies. Another kind of cock ale is defined as “a mixture of spirits and bitters fed to fighting cocks in training.” Inebriated fighting cocks—that is what we need! (By the way, am I allowed to use the word cock? I wonder, but the phrase roostertail party sounds cumbersome, so with due apologies to polite society I will continue in the same vein, but this time only.) It is unclear how cock ale changed (“morphed” is the right word, isn’t it?) to (into) cocktail, but plus or minus a letter in etymology is really nothing. Let us not be petty. The clinching piece of evidence (evidence at last) comes from the circumstance that in the days of cock fighting the spectators used to toast the cock with the most feathers left in its tail after the contest, and the number of ingredients in the drink corresponded to the number of feathers left; hence cocktail. This is the second time a cock’s feather appears in our thriller (you did not forget the patients suffering from a sore throat, did you?).

Cocktails are inseparable from bars and restaurants, and our word may be an abridged form of cock tailings, the name of a mixture of tailings from various liquors, thrown together in a common receptacle and sold at a low price. There is a slightly different version of the bar-and restaurant etymology. It is reported that in the early American days they used to empty the last ounce or so of miscellaneous bottles of liquor into one bottle, the cork of which was decorated with a cock’s tail feathers. Cocktail emerges as cockcork.

Most of the bold conjectures mentioned above will be familiar to specialists (though some have probably never appeared in surveys before; I have an inexhaustible collection of etymological waste). They are hopeless not only because they are so silly, but rather by definition. If any of them had any foundation in reality, the drink would have been called cock’s tail (cf. coxcomb, that is, cock’s comb). Some people realized this and suggested a connection with the word cock-tailed. They were close to the truth, but cock-tailed means “having the tail cocked so that the short stump sticks up like a cock’s tail.” Where does the beverage come in?

Further events developed so. In 1946 a Swedish scholar read attentively the relevant entries in the OED and came to a reasonable conclusion about the origin of cocktail. But etymology is a strange area of research: unless a certain hypothesis is mentioned in a respectable dictionary, it is all but lost. In 1960 a Belgian scholar read the same entries and arrived at the same conclusion as his predecessor. Yet he did not know an important citation his Swedish colleague had unearthed in 1946, and this weakened his case. Although he repeated his results four years later, he did not fare better than the Swede. Finally, in 1978 a spirited, truly effervescent article by a professor from Cornell appeared. Once again the same entries were examined and the same etymology offered, unfortunately, again without the benefit of the most characteristic citation. Needless to say, the last author was unaware of the fact that he had walked a well-trodden path, but he had his reward: since 1978 no one seems to have read his contribution, and he fell into the black hole shared by the Swede and the Belgian. Absolutely all dictionaries repeat in unison that the origin of cocktail is unknown, that is, they copy the “fateful statement” from the OED by James A. H. Murray. Etymologies are not theorems and cannot be proved by means of syllogisms, but the suggestion by the three scholars seems to be right, and I must add that such a consensus in matters etymological is a shining miracle.

This is their proposal. It is not as charmingly simple as Eric Partridge would prefer it to be (“Cocktail. Any creature with tail resembling a cock’s, hence a lively cheerful, basically spirituous drink”), but, by way of compensation, it makes sense. It was customary to dock the tails of horses that were not thoroughbred (for example, of hunters’ and stagecoach horses). They were called cocktailed horses, later simply cocktails. By extension, the word cocktail was applied to a vulgar, ill-bred person raised above his station, a person assuming the position of a gentleman but deficient in gentlemanly breeding. Now let us note that, according to the 1806 citation given in the Swedish article (it antedates Murray’s examples by three years), “cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters” (Balance, Hudson, N. Y., May 13, 1806; the citation appeared in the Supplement to the OED, but its value was not appreciated). Water was an ingredient of the original cocktail! According to an 1836 anecdote, a wounded duelist was carried into a tavern and revived by a mixture of liquor, egg yolk, sugar, lemon, and crushed ice (presumably a cocktail), and, as we know, ice is frozen water. Cocktail then was an acceptable alcoholic drink, but diluted, not a “purebred,” a beverage promising more than it could deliver, a thing “raised above its station.” Hence the highly appropriate slang word applied earlier to inferior horses and sham gentlemen. And now welcome to the cocktail hour but go to your room before people notice that you are in your (egg)cups.

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to blog.us@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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