The liquid-lunch mainstay of swiller and sophisticrat alike; opinions on the origin of the word ‘cocktail’ are as mixed as the drinks themselves, with several clearly the product of knocking back a few strong ones. Everything from drinks served in French-eggcups (coquetier) to the glasses of American Revolutionaries being furnished with chicken feathers (cock – male chicken – tails) from Royalist coops, have been cited. The claim that the drink name comes from the occasional late-medieval English practice of flavouring a gallon of beer with a herbed chicken-carcass may fall a little foul of its true origins; and ‘Cocket-Ale’: (cocket – from an Anglo-Latin corruption of the signing-off of documents: quo quietus est on the King’s Seal of the Custom House) is an attractive, if unlikely explanation for the modern drink. Another less taxing suggestion is easily visible when watching anyone making a cocktail at a student party – usually involving the combination of lethal looking concoctions in plastic containers / funnels / teacups to be rapidly consumed to prove one’s worth (if not one’s sense). To make up a drink by taking the last dregs (tail) from a barrel via the tap/peg (originally the cock) is a fair claim to making a glass of cock-tail. To take a man ‘down a peg or two’ comes either from the tradition of outdoing your opponent at drinking pegged-measures from large tankards; or reducing someone’s erroneous croquet score by lowering their peg (the game that also gives us ‘pipped at the post’ when one knocks an opponent’s ball off track). As much as the modern Pimms-drinker may favour the latter explanation, I’m pretty sure it involved booze. Booze as a word comes from Middle Dutch busen (Mod. Du. buizen): ‘to drink to excess’; and dregs as a word is likely to come from Old Norse dreggjar describing the alcoholic sediments in the bottom of barrels. If nothing else the origins of the average drinker’s vocabulary suggests that the Northern stretches of Europe (where we also find the birthplace of the word drunk) certainly knew (and know) how to get the best from their barrels.
But while chicken-flavoured Cosmopolitans and feather-tipped Tequilas read distinctly more tall-tale than cocktail, a good ‘cock-and-bull’ story does at least claim to share some bar space with our dubiously named drink. Two neighbouring pubs in Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire: ‘The Famous Cock Hotel’ and the (pun-flinging) ‘Inn-famous Bull’ claim the phrase ‘cock-and-bull’ came into being to describe the coachmen’s stories poured (and thoroughly embellished) between them. While a nice story, the phrase is probably more likely to refer to the medieval fancy for the ‘bestiary’ tale – stories akin to Aesop’s Fables where anthropomorphic (i.e. ‘people like’) animals take centre stage – than cross-pub banter. Banter as a word seems to be of unknown origin. First recorded in writing in the play Madam Fickle by Thomas D’Urfey (1676), it may well be something analogous to the low-talk of a bantling – a term (possibly introduced corruptly through German bänkling) formerly with the implication of the born-out-of-wedlock ‘bastard’. That the phrase cock-and-bull became negatively associated with made up stories may be a reaction to the rejection of the fable for more serious works in later centuries (combined with more than a little retrospective association with the more modern phrase ‘bullshit’); and that Burton uses the phrase ‘cock and bull’ (though not in a negative sense) in his The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621): “Some men’s whole delight is to talk of a Cock and Bull over a pot” also suggests that the coachmen of the two pubs probably didn’t coin the phrase in the 18th century as claimed.
But these tall-taled taverns aren’t the only ones to claim such linguistic lineage. The phrase ‘by hook or by crook’ is staked by Hook Head and the nearby village of Crook, in Waterford, Ireland. That hook and crook are synonyms (the latter from the French influenced Middle English croc or the older Norse krókr meaning a ‘curve’) and combine in the phrase to become a metaphor meaning ‘by one means or another’ seems lost on the little Irish village. The metaphor itself most probably arose from the shifting of stubborn sheep with a shepherd’s staff – the crook; or (failing that) tripping them with the ‘hook’ at the other end (though 'hook' could quite simply have been included for no more reason that it’s rhyming quality with 'crook'). It is worth noting that a Bishop's staff is also called a 'crook' (continuing the 'Lord is my Shepherd' motif), though does not tend to feature the lower tripping facility. The Cock Hotel also claims to be the originator of the nursery rhyme line “ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross” due to the proximity of the coach-house to Banbury. But while this cock-and-bull tale may well fall limp (one finds that a ‘cock-horse’ is generally recognised as one in which the horse’s tail-hair has been cropped short so as to stick up straight as akin cockerel’s tail feathers, not a horse hired from the Cock Hotel) it does provide us with a very sensible suggestion for the origin of our original word. To ‘cock one’s tail’ with a stiff drink presents us with the ancestral action akin to the modern day publican drinking a vodka-Red Bull as a ‘pick-me-up’!
De Factoid the Sixth: coming soon