In honour of World Cocktail Day (13th May) we thought we'd head off on an etymology trail and find out exactly how the word cocktail came about.
The history of the word has been long disputed - however, thanks to the research of drinks historians, Jared Brown & David Wondrich, the murky past may have just become a little clearer. There's a wonderful book from 1785 named “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” by Francis Grose, and among the many interesting definitions present is: “To feague” (aka to fig), which Grose defines as to put “ginger up a horse’s rear, to make him lively and carry his tail well.” Horse dealers would use this trick before exhibiting their animals for sale - as a cocked-up tail is apparently a sign of a spritely horse. Eventually, the term began to be used colloquially to mean encouraging or spiriting one up. The effect of drinking a mixed drink has of course a similar effect, so it seems that the word became conflated.
The earliest reference to a drink being referred to as a cocktail was in a London newspaper in 1798, in an article which spoke of the Prime Minister of the day – Mr Pitt – ordering a “cocktail (vulgarly called gingers)” from the menu of a pub called The Axe & Gate which stood on the corner of Downing Street - and the name seems to have quickly stuck. By 1803 the name had of course spread to America where the word had its first mention in print- a Vermont newspaper article claimed that drinking a cocktail was “excellent for the head”. Three years later, on 13th May 1806, the cocktail was formally defined by The Balance & Columbian Repository, an upstate New York newspaper, as “a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind – sugar, water, & bitters”.
So there we have it, the origin of one of the most well known words in the English language was right here in Blighty - now that definitely deserves a cheers!