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Q From Jonathan Bennett: I used the word milktoast the other day to describe a person who is unmotivated, ambivalent, and apathetic in their general demeanor. I was questioned on the true meaning and origin of the word. Am I using it correctly? What is its actual meaning, and where does the term come from?

A You’re not quite there. The usual spelling is milquetoast, but said the same way as your spelling. And the usual sense is that of a person who is timid or meek, unassertive. Such people may appear apathetic or unmotivated, but that’s not the reason for their being quiet.

It’s an eponym, named after a fictional cartoon character named Caspar Milquetoast, invented by the American illustrator Harold T Webster in 1924. The strip was called The Timid Soul and appeared every Sunday in the New York Herald Tribune up to his death in 1953. Mr Webster said that his character was “the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick”.

The name is just a Frenchified respelling of the old American English term milk toast, an uninspiring, bland dish which was created from slices of buttered toast laid in a dish of milk, usually considered to be food for invalids. There’s an even older foodstuff, milksop, which was untoasted bread soaked in milk, likewise something suitable only for infants or the sick. From the thirteenth century on, milksop was a dismissive term for “an effeminate spiritless man or youth; one wanting in courage or manliness”, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it. Mr Milquetoast is in the same tradition.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 1 Jun. 2002

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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.

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Last modified: 1 June 2002.