Origins of the word cocktail

Photography by entry in Oxford Dictionary of English

Origins of the word cocktail image 1

The Oxford English Dictionary affirms the original use of 'cocktail' was to describe a horse with a tail like a cock's - that is to say, a docked tail, which stuck up, rather than hung down. That came to mean a racehorse that was mixed - not thoroughbred. Hence, it's asserted that this sense of 'cocktail' came to mean a mixed or 'adulterated' drink.

The word 'cocktail' is first known to have entered the world of print in 1798 through the pages of London's Morning Post and Gazetteer in a satirical comment on the then-Prime Minister, William Pitt. This is followed in 1803 when "cocktail" appeared in a US agricultural newspaper called The Farmer's Cabinet.

Despite these two earlier mentions, the cocktail's birthday is celebrated on 13th May, thanks to a reader who wrote to another early paper, The Balance and Columbian Repository, enquiring what was meant by the word in an article. On the 13th May 1806 the editor replied with the first known definition, "Cock-tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters--it is vulgarly called a bittered sling, and is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion, in as much as it renders the heart flout and bold, at the same time that it fuddles the head. It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow any thing else." [sic]

Nobody knows where the word comes from although it originally referred to only one type of mixed drink, it is now a catchall term for mixed drinks in general. The following theories about its origins are ranked in order of implausibility.

  1. An Aztec noble once ordered his daughter, Princess Xochitl (or various spellings), to serve a mixed drink to a guest. Her name entered the language and became corrupted as 'cocktail'.
  2. Betsy Flanagan, an innkeeper during the American Revolution, stole a neighbour's chickens to serve to some French soldiers who were fighting on the American side. She used feathers from their tails to garnish their drinks, whereupon the military shouted in Franglais, 'Vive le cock-tail.'
  3. The word comes from the West African kaketal, meaning 'scorpion', which, like a cocktail, has a sting in its tail.
  4. Cock-ale was an old English ale, spiced, with a ground-up red cockerel mixed in – the word became applied to other drinks (containing neither beer nor cockerel) and gained a letter 't'.
  5. In a Mexican tavern, English sailors noticed that mixed drinks were stirred with the root of a plant known as cola de gallo, or in English 'cock's tail': the sailors brought the name to England, and thence to the US.
  6. Coquetel was a term for a mixed drink in Bordeaux, which rapidly became 'cocktail' in America.
    Coquetier is French for an egg cup, the vessel in which Antoine-Amedée Peychaud of bitters fame prepared his mixes. Anglo-American pronunciation rapidly turned it into 'cocktail'.
  7. In some old taverns, the last dregs of booze from the barrels of spirits, known as the cock-tailings, were chucked together and sold off cheap to drinkers, who would then call for 'cocktailings', later shortened to cocktails.
  8. Lastly, and we think most plausibly, we are back where this page started, with the Oxford English Dictionary and the English term for a horse with a docked tail being a sign of their mixed blood. Hence a cocktail meant not just a mixed horse but a mixed drink.

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