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I searched the word milquetoast and found out that it is a very pejorative term used in American English (after a cartoon character- Casper Milquetoast) to refer to someone of an unusually meek, bland, soft or submissive nature, who is easily overlooked, written off, and who may also appear overly sensitive, timid, indecisive or cowardly (Wikipedia); the equivalent of a pipsqueak.

I’m quite taken aback and find it difficult to understand the connection between the word milk - originally associated with kindness and humanness, namely in Shakespeare’s work (milk of human kindness & milky gentleness )- and the negative attributes mentioned above.

My questions are:

How did this shift in meaning occur, and what’s the connection between milk and the negative meaning it acquired? Are there other words or expressions referring to the pejorative use of the word milk in English (American or other varieties of English)?

Milk of human kindness

Definition:

A phrase from Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, meaning humane feeling, concern for other people: “Everyone agreed that Houston was a brilliant thinker and an excellent lawyer, but some people worried that he lacked the milk of human kindness.”

Dictionary.com

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milksop is a very similar word, which Merriam-Webster defines as

a weak boy or man

or

an unmanly man

The etymology given is

Middle English, literally, bread soaked in milk. First Known Use: 14th century

A Google search for milksop provides the synonyms:

namby-pamby, coward, weakling, Milquetoast

I have found no firm agreement on whether the term milksop for a weak person derives from that person's similarity to the dish of milksop (bland, insipid, weak), or that the person resembles the sort of individual who would be fed milksop (an infant, or sickly person). It is certainly one or the other.

There is a long discussion on the etymology of milksop in Current Methods in Historical Semantics(pages 26-29), which again reaches no firm conclusion on this matter, as far as my understanding of the passage goes.

However, it is certain that there is no development of milk itself as being a negative term.

Incidentally, sop itself appears to come from soup as indicated in The Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, Volume 6 (1599-1604), referring to a breakfast in 1602.

Unless milk is implied in the “ sowpe” in which the “quhyte breid" [white bread] or the “ait laif” [oat loaf] was to be presented, there is no mention whatever of that article. Porridge also, which we should have expected at the bursars' table, seems to be completely absent; for it is difficult to construe "ain ait laif in a sowpe" [one oat loaf in a soup] as meaning ordinary porridge even without milk. What we see is some kind of sop of oat bread for the bursars, and a similar sop of wheat bread for the masters, with cold meat and ale in addition. On this they began the day in Glasgow in the year 1602, - the breakfast of the Glasgow Professors not differing much, it may be assumed from that on which Shakespeare and other well-remembered Englishmen of that time were in the habit of beginning the day in London.

This passage may suggest that the nature of the dish is what is referred to when milksop was first used as an insult, as bursars, masters and professors at Glasgow, in addition to Shakespeare and other London gentlemen would not take kindly to being considered sickly by dint of their choice of breakfast dish. But, I concede that this is not proof and I consider the matter to be open to debate.

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    "milk soaked in bread is soft" - and hard to imagine ;) – oerkelens Jan 6 '15 at 9:02
  • I overlooked "toast"-- hard to imagine why. – user15851 Jan 6 '15 at 9:08
  • I think that oerkelens's point is that you have "milk soaked in bread" where it might make more sense to say "bread soaked in milk." – Sven Yargs Jan 6 '15 at 18:12
  • Ah yes, I've corrected my confused typing. Thanks, oerlekens and Sven. – Phil M Jones Jan 7 '15 at 13:48
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It's not that the person being described is like bread soaked in milk, it's that they eat bread soaked in milk.

Milktoast was a common dish (recommended even by physicians of generations past) for those who were convalescing, or otherwise weak of constitution. Thus, a grown man who was weak, meek, sickly, etc., would be called a "milquetoast" or "milksop" - implying that he was too fragile to even tolerate a regular meal.

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    I'm not doubting you, but do you have a reference for that, to add completeness to the answer? – Phil M Jones Jan 6 '15 at 11:56
  • Wikipedia: Milk toast, light and easy to digest, is an appropriate food for someone with a weak or "nervous" stomach. – user15851 Jan 6 '15 at 12:52
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    Wikipedia has an entry for "Milk toast" describing it as a food commonly given to children or the sick. I can't think of the movie... (maybe, "Topper") where the henpecked husband is given milk toast, instead of the steak he wants, for dinner - (supposedly because he has an ulcer, or something) the gesture is meant to indicate that he's weak in spirit, and allows his wife to dominate him. Anyway, to me it's a funny question - the reference would be obvious to anyone over 70... Go ask Granny - she'll tell ya. – Oldbag Jan 6 '15 at 12:53
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    That still doesn't specify whether the insult derives from a person who can only eat milk toast, or a person that resembles milk toast in some way. In fact, wikipedia's entry states "Milk toast's soft blandness served as inspiration for the name of the timid and ineffectual comic strip character Caspar Milquetoast, drawn by H. T. Webster from 1924 to 1952. Thus, the term milquetoast entered the language as the label for a timid, shrinking, apologetic person." – Phil M Jones Jan 6 '15 at 14:13
  • Oh, good gravy... This reminds me of how I'm always explaining to kids how "Letting your freak flag fly" only meant (literally) growing your hair long - in the 1960's - when the expression was first coined. They refuse to believe me, (despite the fact that I have first-hand memories) because they prefer the new meaning. Yes, Phil, "milquetoast" entered the language in the way you describe. The cartoon character was NAMED "Milquetoast" BECAUSE of the expression "milk toast" to describe that type of character. – Oldbag Jan 6 '15 at 14:25