Stupid Question ™
Nov. 2, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: What’s the origin of the word “cocktail” for describing a mixed drink?
A: No one knows, but that hasn’t stopped theorists from becoming drunk on a pop-etymology cocktail consisting of bad rhymes, patriotic stories, individualist heroes and hideously literal interpretations.
“Cocktail” has had many meanings over the years. The original is “the tail of a rooster,” or something figuratively like one. In mid-1800s England, it came to mean a racing horse of bad pedigree, and also a person masquerading as upper-class. It could also refer to a coward or a prostitute.
The meaning “a mixed drink usually with sugar and strong flavoring” is of US origin, and the earliest citations come from New York State. The first is from the May 13, 1806 edition of the Hudson, New York newspaper “The Balance.”
I found 13 origin stories for this usage, most of them absurd balderdash ranging from Aztec princesses to West African scorpions to Revolutionary heroines who killed Tory roosters.
Even the strongest contenders tend to evaporate upon examination. Take the claim that it derives from the French coquetier, or eggcup, in which New Orleans mixologist Antoine Peychaud reputedly served the first cocktails. This silly rhyme-story comes from an anonymous story in a hotel newsletter; Peychaud wasn’t even in business until about 1830.
Ditto for the notion that French soldiers introduced Americans to a mixed drink, long served in Bordeaux, called coquetel. This story came from a patriotic French journalist who was arguing that the English word be exterminated from French. You won’t find coquetel in a French dictionary; meanwhile, the French word for “cocktail” is cocktail.
More persuasive is a relation to “cock-ale,” a hard-as-nails English beverage of circa 1650-1750 in which ale was blended with jellied or minced rooster meat. (This is not to be confused with the claim there was a later “cock-ale” that was a drink fed to chickens, of which no evidence exists.)
But, while no one can say for sure, it seems likely that the truth is prosaic, and “cocktails” were simply named for an alcoholic effect somehow similar to a cock’s tail.
The earliest citations argue for such an interpretation. For one thing, they call the drink “cocktail” (an adjective) rather than our modern “a cocktail” (a noun). This suggests the name described a cocktail-like effect rather than a literal relationship to roosters and other items.
Also, the original “Balance” usage noted that cocktails were more “vulgarly” known as “bittered sling.” The existence of another more common, and far more literal, slang term argues against “cocktail” originating among soldiers, barkeeps or other common folk; it suggests that “cocktail” may have been an arch and sophisticated pun. (Besides “The Balance’s” snobby remark, the earliest citations come from literature.)
Maybe the drink was considered a pick-me-up to make you as upright as a rooster’s tail, or so intoxicating it made you bend over “cocktailed.” Or maybe it was considered a drink that looked good but was of a bad pedigree.