• cocktail •
Pronunciation: kahk-tayl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A mixed alcoholic drink. 2. Any mixture of unlikely ingredients, as 'a cocktail of chemical effluents in the river' or 'fruit cocktail'. 3. A horse or person lacking proper breeding (not thoroughbred). 4. A horse or other animal with a docked or cocked up tail (in the literal sense of both consituents of the compound word).
Notes: Equine cocktails get their name from the adjective cocktailed, but to say that all the guests at your party were fully cocktailed would be stretching the tolerance of this word's meaning. Other than this adjective, however, our Good Word today comes without relatives.
In Play: Cocktails in their current sense have always been a mark of sophistication. We never saw Nick Charles in the "Thin Man" movie series or Dean Martin on his TV show without a cocktail in his hand. Now that few of us see cocktailed horses any more, the "mixture" sense has begun to widen: "My doctor recommended that I drink a cocktail of the juices from the Earth's most disgusting vegetation to improve my health. Early death compares well to drinking his prescription every day."
Word History: Although this word is relatively new (first published in 1808), no one knows where it came from. Because cock and tail have so many meanings, a plethora of speculations has arisen. H. L. Mencken is known for the most in-depth research on the subject, and he came up with several suggestions. During the Colonial period, when the casks were nearly empty in the inns, the tailings (dregs) would be mixed and sold at a reduced price, poured from the cock (tap) of the cheaper firkin (cask). Patrons came to call this drink cock tailings, later shortened to cocktail. This tale fits the sense of less than thoroughbred origins, but does not refer to a mixed drink. I prefer a story about the Haitian apothecary Antoine Peychaud, famous for his Peychaud bitters. At his parties in the French quarter of New Orleans in the 1790s, Peychaud is said to have served a mixed brandy drink in a coquetier "eggcup", pronounced roughly [cocktyay]. Folk etymology might very well have converted the French word into English cocktail. (Next time you have a cocktail in your hand, please drink a toast to Chris Rogers for suggesting this fascinating Good Word.)