My favorite dictionary (it’s an old red Webster) tells me the word “cocktail” first came into popular usage around 1806. The word is probably of French origin but there’s no elaboration. The primary description of a cocktail, according to Webster, is “an iced drink of wine or distilled liquor mixed with flavoring ingredients.” Yum!
Still, cocktail seems to be a rather peculiar choice of words to describe a cool beverage that humans enjoy. Further investigation, this time in my 1979 edition of “Playboy’s New Host & Bar Book,” by Thomas Mario (I’ve worked this one ragged over the years), reveals some possibilities, including a couple rather amusing ones:
Coquetl, a word once used in France’s Bordeaux region to designate a mixed drink.
Octelle, a Southern belle of great charm and beauty, is said to have wowed a gathering of thirsty Army officers with a refreshingly spirited drink they named in her honor.
Coctel, the captivating daughter of a Mexican king, is said to have offered a special beverage, served in an opulent ruby-encrusted gold cup reserved for royalty, to the court while entertaining a highly-esteemed American general. The social dilemma - who drinks first, Mexican royalty or the king’s guest? - was solved when Coctel herself took the first sip.
In the days of the Old West, horse traders were said to perk up weary, old nags with a hefty dose of liquor before leading them to the auction block. By the opening bid, these has-been nags’ tails would be cocked up high and proud and they’d by prancing around like show ponies.
Thirsty New Yorkers looking for a drink in the wee morning hours in New Amsterdam (modern-day New York City) frequently stumbled across local barmaids using brooms made of rooster tail feathers to sweep away the bar debris left over from the rowdy night before.
James Fenimore Cooper is credited with the tale of a fetching Irish maiden who finagled enough chickens from her Tory neighbors that she roasted up a feast to serve to her own dinner guests, a group of anti-Tory Revolutionary sympathizers. For added fun, she used the tail feathers she’d plucked from the cooked cocks to decorate her guests’ drinks.
I doubt I’ll ever know the honest-to-goodness first and true version of the origin of the word but I don’t really care too much about that. I’m going to use whichever story suits the situation, should the question ever arise. That’s one of the nicest things about bar stories - it’s OK (and even a bit expected) that they change with each telling.
The historically correct cocktail word origin doesn’t interest me so much as Webster’s definition. After all, it’s what’s in the glass, not what you call it, that tastes so darn good.