The Grammarphobia Blog

The cocktail party

Q: I wonder if you can help me find the etymology of the word “cocktail.” I’ve looked in a few places, but haven’t found a satisfactory answer.

A: I can see why you’re having trouble tracking down the use of “cocktail” for a mixed drink. There are lots of popular theories about the origin of this usage, but I don’t buy any of them.

(I’ve read that a footnote in H. L. Mencken’s The American Language lists 40 different etymologies for the term. Unfortunately, I don’t see the footnote in my 1937 edition of the book.)

The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins says its favorite etymology for the term is that Antoine Peychaud, a New Orleans pharmacist and the creator of Peychaud’s bitters, popularized the use of “cocktail” for a mixed drink that he served to customers.

Well, Peychaud may have helped popularize the term, but it appeared in print well before he opened his pharmacy in the 1830s.

The first citation for “cocktail” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an 1803 issue of The Farmer’s Cabinet, an Amherst, N.H., weekly: “Drank a glass of cocktail – excellent for the head … Call’d at the Doct’s … drank another glass of cocktail.”

The word sleuth Michael Quinion, in an item about “cocktail” on his World Wide Words website, lists quite a few questionable (and entertaining) etymologies.

For example, an innkeeper named Betsy (or Betty) Flannigan supposedly used the tail feathers of a cock as swizzle sticks when serving drinks during the American Revolution.

And the Marquis de Lafayette, according to another story, carried an old French recipe for mixed wines, called coquetel, to America during the Revolution.

Although we don’t know – and may never know – who first used “cocktail” to refer to a mixed drink, I wonder if the originator of this usage may have had the word’s equine history in mind.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, according to the OED, the term “cock-tailed” was used to refer to a coach horse or hunter with “the tail docked, so that the short stump left sticks up like a cock’s tail.

Eventually the word “cocktail” came to be used for a “horse of racing stamp and qualities, but decidedly not thorough-bred, from a known stain in his parentage,” according to a 19th-century dictionary of rural sports.

Did the use of “cocktail” for a mixed-breed horse with spirit influence the use of the word for a spirited mixed drink? Or vice versa? It’s hard to tell from the few OED citations, but I wouldn’t bet against the horse.

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