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Moxie

Q From Barry Praag in Israel: I watched a recent rerun of the film The Sting and one of the phrases that was in use was ‘you got moxy, kid’. Where on earth does this phrase originate?

A Moxie, usually so spelt, was (and in New England it would seem still is) the name of a non-alcoholic drink, first produced in substantial quantities by the Moxie Nerve Food Company of Lowell, Massachusetts in about 1884. Its founder, Dr Augustin Thompson, originally developed it in the 1870s as a patent medicine or nerve tonic, claiming it cured paralysis, loss of manhood, and softening of the brain. The name may come from the Algonquin Indian word root maski- “medicine” which became moxie as a name for wintergreen, one of the early constituents of this bitter drink.

Moxie was the first carbonated and bottled soft drink that was widely distributed in America (just beating Dr Pepper and Coca-Cola), being sold from “Moxie bottle wagons” and later “Moxiemobiles”. It was heavily promoted in the first three decades of the twentieth century, so that the name became very widely known, especially on the East Coast. In the twenties, the word picked up an informal meaning of “guts, courage, nerve”; the first citation I can find is from a story by Damon Runyon in 1930: “Personally, I always figure Louie a petty-larceny kind of guy, with no more moxie than a canary bird”.

It would seem the word, at first slang, derived from one or other of the firm’s slogans of the inter-war period, such as “What this country needs is plenty of Moxie!”. Some have said that it needed courage just to drink the stuff, no doubt a calumny, but even its supporters today admit it’s an acquired taste.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 17 Apr. 1999

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Last modified: 17 April 1999.