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Q From David Coe; related questions came from Marlena Von Kazmier and others: Being a keen creator and imbiber of these wonderful refreshments called cocktails I would love to track down the origins of the word. Some research has suggested that early mixed drinks may have been decorated with feathers (unlike today’s umbrellas!) but surely there is more to it than that?

A There is certainly much more to the matter than that, though almost all that is written about the origin of the name for this great American institution is spurious. H L Mencken wrote in 1946 that he had found forty supposed etymologies, and a quick look at a few current books on drinks (and, alas, etymology) show that many of them are healthy and still going the rounds.

The problem is that the word cocktail suddenly appears in print in 1806, with no trail of earlier forms that would enable us to determine its provenance. It’s as though some alien had suddenly put it into men’s minds in that year. The result has been a vast flowering of speculation, most of it way out in “here be dragons” territory:

If you hunt around online you can find lots of wild elaborations of many of these stories, plus many others. There’s no evidence that supports any one of them in particular, though some are obviously more silly than others.

The last in the list sounds most plausible, since it’s supported by more circumstantial references as to name, place and date. However, it turns out that the dates are wrong, as the Antoine Peychaud who opened the apothecary’s shop at 123 Royal Street, New Orleans, did so in 1838, not in 1795, too late for him to have been the source of the term. The confusion may have come about because his father did arrive in New Orleans in that year.

One intriguing point about the cocktail is that the first reference to it says that it is “a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters”. Charles Dickens wrote in his Martin Chuzzlewit in 1844 (he was versed in American ways by this time): “He could ... smoke more tobacco, drink more rum-toddy, mint-julep, gin-sling, and cocktail, than any private gentleman of his acquaintance”. A little later still, Thomas Hughes wrote “Here, Bill, drink some cocktail” in Tom Brown’s Schooldays of 1857. All these suggest that the original cocktail was a specific drink, not a generic name for a type of drink. From the description in the 1806 example, it sounds as though it was something like what is now called an Old-Fashioned.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 4 Jan. 2003
Last updated: 22 Aug. 2003

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-coc3.htm
Last modified: 22 August 2003.