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Why are social drinks referred to as cocktails?

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  • I have read a couple of times that the term came from the practice of placing a bird's feather in a mixed drink as a garnish. But it's probably more likely that this practice was a pun of sorts and the bartender already knew the term "cocktail".
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 3 '20 at 3:27
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Unfortunately, contrary to the above article, the word cocktail was defined within the drink word long before any of the above horse related references.

The first appearance of the word 'cocktail' in relation to drinks was, so far as we know, on 16 March 1798, the Morning Post and Gazetter reported that a pub owner won a lottery and erased all his customers' debts:

A publican, in Downing-street, who had a share of the 20,000 l. prize, rubbed out all his scores, in a transport of joy: This was an humble imitation of his neighbour, who, when he drew the highest prize in the State Lottery, not only rubbed out, but actually broke scores with his old customers, and entirely forgot them.

The next week, on 20 March 1798, the Morning Post and Gazetter satirically listed details of the 17 politicians' pub debts, including the following:

Mr. Pitt, two petit vers of "L'huile de Venus" 010 Ditto, one of "perfeit amour" 007 Ditto, "cock-tail" (vulgarly called ginger) 003/4

The fact that the "cock-tail" was on of Mr Pitt's drinks-listed after two obviously French beverages-suggests that the word "cock-tail" might have had French origins...

The word was first defined in 1806 in the editorial for the Balance & Columbian Repository as:'"Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters."

These are the oldest known written references for the word 'cocktail' within the English speaking world and were unearthed by liquid historian Jared Brown.

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    Etymonline notes that the most durable etymology comes from the French for egg cups. Apr 10 '14 at 10:03
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The origin of the term 'cocktail' was with horses. First two meanings in the OED are as follows:

A cocktailed horse (cf. cock-tailed adj. 1). The fact that hunters and stage-coach horses, the tails of which were generally shortened in this way, were not as a rule thorough-breds seems to have been the origin of the modern turf application.

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).

1808 Ellis Let. 23 Sept. in Lockhart Scott xvii, It is certainly painful to see a race horse in a hackney chaise, but..the wretched cock tail on whom the same task is usually imposed must, etc. This was extended to persons, as in :

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

1854 Thackeray Newcomes I. xxx. 294 Such a selfish, insolent, coxcomb as that, such a cocktail.

So long before it was applied to drinks the word 'cocktail' had already had a considerable history. The essence was one of mixing and blending.

The first 'cocktail party' does not occur until 1928, in New York. The word 'cocktail' meaning a specially created drink of blended ingredients, is significantly more widely used in America than in Britain.

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  • and how do the horses relate to the drinks?
    – bib
    Apr 9 '14 at 23:31
  • @bib Sorry, I wasn't concentrating!
    – user63230
    Apr 10 '14 at 1:52
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    @bib Neither are thoroughbreds!
    – WS2
    Apr 10 '14 at 6:33
  • The etymonline entry for cocktail says that the drink sense is attested from 1806 and extends back to the 18th century, predating your references. Cocktail party is much later, but cocktails themselves are much earlier. Apr 10 '14 at 10:00
  • @Brad Szonye You raise a relevant point. The OED does give the first drinks reference as 1803, which predates the horse reference. It gives an etymology for the horse meaning, but supplies none for drinks. What does etymoline have to say about etymology? This is what OED says about horses. a. A cocktailed horse (cf. cock-tailed adj. 1). The fact that hunters and stage-coach horses, the tails of which were generally shortened in this way, were not as a rule thorough-breds seems to have been the origin of the modern turf application.
    – WS2
    Apr 10 '14 at 14:03

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