Why Was the Bittered Sling Called Cocktail?


See also, Old-fashioned and Modern Cocktails.

Traditional Cocktail

There are some silly legends about how the cocktail drink was named involving the French word coquetier, an Aztec princess named Xochitl, a plucked rooster’s feather ending up in a drink, or Wondrich’s folly of shoving ginger up horses’ asses. But, the legends ignore the fact that in the historic record, it meant something else before it meant a drink. The following is from the Oxford English Dictionary:

cock-tailedadj.

1. Of horses: Having the tail docked, so that the short stump left sticks up like a cock’s tail. Common in the case of hunters, stage-coach horses, etc., during the

latter part of the 18th c. and first part of the 19th.

1769  Dublin Mercury 28–31 Oct. 1/3  A pair of beautiful black cock-tailed Geldings.

1789  H. L. Thrale Observ. Journey France I. 290  They got an English cock-tailed nag, and set him to the business.

2. Having the tail (or hinder part) cocked up.

cocktailn. and adj.

1. n. 1. a. A cock-tailed horse.

1. n. 1. b. ‘Any horse of racing stamp and qualities, but decidedly not thorough-bred, from a known stain in his parentage’ (Dict. Rural Sports 1870, §926).

1. n. 1. c. In extended use: a person assuming the position of a gentleman, but deficient in thorough gentlemanly breeding.

1. n. 2. (More fully cocktail beetle): A brachelytrous beetle which ‘cocks up’ the posterior part of the body when irritated; the Devil’s Coach-horse

1. n. 3. [A slang name, of which the real origin appears to be lost.] A drink, consisting of spirit mixed with a small quantity of bitters, some sugar, etc. orig. U.S.

As can be seen above, the first meaning of the word cocktail, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the cock-tailed horse. That a horse with a cocked tail would be called a cocktail is directly understandable and self-explanatory in a way that using the word for a type of drink never has been. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the cock-tailed horse entered the historic record before the cocktail drink did. The shortening of “cock-tailed horse” to “cocktail horse” or just “cocktail” is completely natural in English. It would be surprising for it not have occurred in much the same way that Cognac brandy, Scotch whisky, Tequila mezcal and Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail have all been shortened to Cognac, Scotch, Tequila and Old-fashioned [sic], respectively. The O.E.D. states that the origin of the use of the word cocktail for the type of drink is lost. But, with a clear understanding of the type of drink that was called a cocktail, we can make a very well-informed hypothesis.

Why was the bittered sling so much like a cocktail horse?

In his 1908 book, World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them, William Boothby wrote: “The idea of making any liquor into a cocktail was conceived only for the purpose of removing the sharp, raw taste peculiar to all plain liquors. Therefore it is not necessary to use a combination of cordials, essences or lemon juice as some ‘bar creatures’ do, but by adhering strictly to the herein contained directions you will be enabled to serve these famous American decoctions in as fine style as the highest salaried mixologist in the land.”

In his passage above, Boothby is referring to the fact that the bitters in a cocktail will mitigate the sensation of the fumatic harshness of alcohol, and that the desired nature of a true cocktail is that it should strike the palate as little more than a tamed version of the alcoholic product(s) it is made from.

The traditional definitions of the word, taken with Boothby’s description and admonition against adding cordials or juice, strongly suggest that the type of drink should be little more than a slightly modified and tamed version of the liquor it is made of. It is tamed through the bitters, which mitigate the sensation of the fumatic harshness of alcohol. The most common true cocktail still served is the Old-fashioned Whiskey Cocktail. In that drink, the main character is that of the whiskey. It is very much like whiskey, but undeniably mixed – or, like ‘cocktail’ definition 1.. n. 1. b. above, “of racing stamp and qualities, but decidedly not thorough-bred.” Or, put another way, the bittered sling is like the cock-tail horse in that both seem to have the character of the unmixed items they compare to – thoroughbred horses or neat spirits.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives two definitions of the word cocktail that are clearly extensions or adaptations of the original, horse-related meaning. One is a person that assumes the status of a gentleman, as in coming from an aristocratic family, but who was not born as such. The logic of calling such a person after a cocktail horse should need no explanation, but it obviously works from the sense of a cocktail being a mixed-breed horse of that exhibits the quality of a pure, thoroughbred horse. The other is the beetle that sticks up its hind-parts and that the O.E.D. indicates is also called the devil’s coach-horse. As the O.E.D. states, cocktail horses were widely used as coach-horses. Like a cocktail horse’s tail, the beetle’s hind-part would be cocked.

The above extensions or adaptations of the meaning of the word cocktail from its horse-related meaning came in the same era that the bittered sling came to be called a cocktail. I argue that around the year 1800, the word cocktail would first bring to mind a supposedly good-quality horse that was, however, not thoroughbred. I think that any other use of the word at that time would be to indicate some sort of resemblance to a cocktail horse.

As a type of drink, a cocktail seems mostly like the thoroughbred liquor it is made of, but is, however, obviously mixed. This is what I believe was in the mind of the first person that called a bittered sling a cocktail.

Wondrich’s Folly

David Wondrich, in an interview published by Grub Street in April of 2015, said the following: “And I actually know where ‘cocktail’ came from, pretty solidly. It’s in the book. Ginger was used in the horse trade to make a horse stick its tail up. They’d put it in its ass. If you had an old horse you were trying to sell, you would put some ginger up its butt, and it would cock its tail up and be frisky. That was known as ‘cock-tail.’ It comes from that. It became this morning thing. Something to cock your tail up, like an eye-opener. I’m almost positive that’s where it’s from.”

Wondrich is altogether wrong in suggesting that the meaning of the word ‘cock-tail’ (before it referred to a type of drink) had anything to do with inserting ginger up horses’ asses. He would probably point out the word ‘feague’ in a single dictionary [Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose (1785 & 1796)]. In that one book, to feague is defined as putting ginger, or an eel, up a horse’s ‘fundament’ in order to make it more lively. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb ‘feague’ as ‘to beat’ or ‘to whip.’ ‘Bumfeague’ is quoted from 1589 as meaning to whip or thrash on the bum or ass. The Oxford English Dictionary does mention that there are jocular applications of the word – meaning less-than-serious, joke definitions. It quotes Francis Grose’s definition as an example of a jocular meaning suggests that it comes from the Netherlands word feak (‘fake’), and is actually a separate word. Francis Grose may have believed the jocular definition was in earnest and presented it as such in his dictionary – or maybe he was intentionallt furthering the joke. The joke may or may not have been on Grose, but it surely was on Wondrich. If shoving ginger up a horse’s ass was an actual practice, it was not widely called feaguing – and it was certainly not the equestrian meaning of the word ‘cock’tail.’ Let us look back to the first definition of the word according to theOxford English Dictionary to be sure.

“1. Of horses: Having the tail docked, so that the short stump left sticks up like a cock’s tail. Common in the case of hunters, stage-coach horses, etc., during the latter part of the 18th c. and first part of the 19th.”

The tail is docked – meaning cut short (like a person’s paycheck might be docked for missing work). The Oxford English Dictionary is the most respected authority on words in the English language. Its definitions need not be supported. But, in this case, I will render support, nonetheless. Dear Oxford, I apologize!

If we are to believe David Wondrich’s unsupported, revisionist redefinition of the equestrian word cocktail or cock-tail, the words “cut cock-tail” in the 1761 source above would make no sense. It does make perfect sense in the light of the Oxford English Dictionary definition. That alone would be a major blow to Wondrich’s wanton guesswork – but let us press the point further. How would the person who reported the 1761 crime know that one of the criminals’ horses had ginger in its ass?
As for the 1792 source; would Wondrich have us believe that James Canolle was in the habit of having his horses (that he obvioiusly had no intent to sell) spend the night in the stable with ginger in their asses? Does gingered liveliness help the horse get a good night’s sleep? Pre-dawn defecation would prevent making use of gingered liveliness in the morning – so there would simply be no conceivable advantage to stabling horses for the night with ginger in their asses.
This is all laughable. Wondrich is simply wrong. To be fair, that any contemporary person would miss the point that the bittered sling is like the cock-tail horse in that both seem to have the character of the unmixed items they compare to – thoroughbred horses or neat spirits – should not be very surprising.

10 thoughts on “Why Was the Bittered Sling Called Cocktail?

    1. Hello Adam. Thank you for your comment. Yes, I was aware of all of that back in 2012. It is interesting, but cannot be put together to tell a conclusive story. Also, gingering would have been a surreptitious sales strategy, surely not one that one would list in the sales note. From 1758 on, horses are advertised for sale as being cocktails. As I indicated in my post, that would be like trying to sell a car and listing it as having sawdust in the transmission. That is laughable. I think that if you (re)read my original post, the logic of it will begin to make sense to you.

    2. A cocktail could also be a man who behaved as a gentleman, even though of low birth. Before that, it was a horse of mixed breeding (low birth) that was of thoroughbred quality. There is a smooth connection there. The same smooth connection exists with the cocktail, a drink that behaves mostly like the spirit it is made of, but mixed with bitters.

    3. Find me something that shows that horses boldly and explicitly advertised as being “cock-tail” in 1758 had ginger already shoved up their asses, just waiting for a buyer. Laughable.

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