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Drunk History: Where did the word cocktail come from?


This Sunday it’s World Cocktail Day, so in honour we thought we'd head off on an etymology trail and find out exactly how the word cocktail come 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.
Among the many definitions found in Francis Grose’s 1785 book “A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” is this one: “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”.