The Vocabularist: Where did the word 'cocktail' come from?

Cocktails Image copyright Getty Images

When the chancellor said the UK faced a "cocktail" of economic risks he was using a word once linked to the great Tory Prime Minister William Pitt the younger.

Cock, meaning a male chicken, has a long history in English but not in other Germanic languages. So has coq in French, but not in other Romance ones. Tail is a fairly standard old English word - "taegl" in Anglo-Saxon.

Do cocks crow "cock-a-doodle-doo"? At least it is close enough to explain the word. Chaunticleer, the rooster who is the hero of Chaucer's Nun's Priest's tale, "cride anon 'kok, kok'" at one point.

Perhaps French and English coined it separately, then borrowed its uses from each other - English from French, as in "coq-au-vin" and French from English, as in "cocktail".

Cock-tail was long used for horses whose tails are docked, giving them a fan-like shape like a rooster's tail. These were often working or rough-country horses, so the term sometimes denoted a cross-breed rather than a thoroughbred.

"I can't afford a thorough-bred, and hate a cocktail," Thackeray wrote in 1842.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Strutting and slightly ridiculous, cockerels have always been the source of funny phrases

This need not be why the word came to be used for a mixed drink in early 19th-Century America.

One of the comic Americans in Charles Dickens' The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) could "drink more rum-toddy, mint-julep, gin-sling, and cocktail" than anyone else.

Such drinks may have been served in glasses that looked like an egg-cup: "Coquetier" in French.

Or "cocktail" may have been as fanciful as many other mixed-drink names.

With their air of aggressive, strutting, slightly ridiculous sexuality, cockerels have always been a source of funny sayings. A 17th Century epigram remarks of a gallant: "How cock-tail proud he doth himself advance."

In 1798 the Morning Post reported that a publican in Whitehall had won the lottery and wiped his slate clean, cancelling the debts of a lot of customers.

It said Prime Minister Pitt was one and his purchases included "cock-tail, vulgarly called ginger".

The whole thing is clearly a joke, now obscure. It may not mean Pitt was partial to fancy tipples - he only owed three farthings for "cock-tail", whatever it was.

George Osborne's use of "cocktail" echoes the common meaning of a dangerous mixture, as in the journalistic cliches "cocktail of drugs" and "lethal cocktail".

The latter was in use as long ago as 1938, when it was a Times crossword clue.

The answer was "Martini". Can you see why?


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