On the superior inventiveness of American alcoholic nomenclature

23 Jul

In the department of conviviality the imaginativeness of Americans was shown both in the invention and in the naming of new and often highly complex beverages. So vast was the production of novelties in the days before Prohibition, in fact, that England borrowed many of them and their names with them. And not only England: one buys cocktails and gin-fizzes to this day in “American bars” that stretch from Paris to Yokohama. Cocktail, stone-fence and sherry-cobbler were mentioned by Irving in 1809;¹ by Thackeray’s time they were already well-known in England. Thornton traces the sling to 1788, and the stinkibus and anti-fogmatic, both now extinct, to the same year. The origin of the rickey, fizz, sour, cooler, skin, shrub and smash, and of such curious American drinks as the horse’s neck, Mamie Taylor, Tom-and-Jerry, Tom-Collins, John-Collins, bishop, stone-wall, gin-fix, brandy-champarelle, golden-slipper, hari-kari, locomotive, whiskey-daisy, blue-blazer, black-stripe, white-plush and brandy-crusta remains to be established; the historians of alcoholism, like the philologists, have neglected them.² But the essentially American character of most of them is obvious, despite the fact that a number have gone over into English. The English, in naming their drinks, commonly display a far more limited imagination. Seeking a name, for example, for a mixture of whiskey and soda-water, the best they could achieve was whiskey-and-soda. The Americans, introduced to the same drink, at once gave it the far more original name of high-ball. So with ginger-ale and ginger-pop.³ So with minerals and soft-drinks. Other characteristic Americanisms (a few of them borrowed by the English) are red-eye, corn-juice, eye-opener, forty-rod, squirrel-whiskey, phlegm-cutter, moon-shine, hard-cider, apple-jack and corpse-reviver, and the auxiliary drinking terms, speak-easy, boot-legger, sample-room, blind-pig, barrel-house, bouncer, bung-starter, dive, doggery, schooner, moonshine, shell, stick, duck, straight, hooch, saloon, finger and chaser. Thornton shows that jag, bust, bat and to crook the elbow are also Americanisms. So are bar-tender and saloon-keeper. To them might be added a long list of common American synonyms for drunk, for example, piffled, pifflicated, awry-eyed, tanked, snooted, stewed, ossified, slopped, fiddled, edged, loaded, het-up, frazzled, jugged, soused, jiggered, corned, jagged and bunned. Farmer and Henley list corned and jagged among English synonyms, but the former is probably an Americanism derived from corn-whiskey or corn-juice, and Thornton says that the latter originated on this side of the Atlantic also.

— HL Mencken, The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, 2nd edn (New York: Knopf, 1921), pp. 99-100.

¹ Knickerbocker’s History of New York; New York, 1809, p. 241.

² Extensive lists of such drinks, with their ingredients, are to be found in The Hoffman House Bartender’s Guide, by Charles Mahoney, 4th ed.; New York, 1916; in The Barkeeper’s Manual, by Raymond E. Sullivan, 4th ed.; Baltimore, n.d., and in Wehman Brothers’ Bartenders’ Guide; New York, 1912. An early list, from the Lancaster (Pa.) Journal of Jan. 26, 1821, is quoted by Thornton, vol. ii, p. 985. The treatise by Prof. Sullivan (whose great talents I often enjoyed at the Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore before the Methodist hellenium) is particularly interesting. The sale of all such books, I believe, is now prohibited, but they may be consulted by scholars in the Library of Congress.

³ An English correspondent writes: “Did the Americans invent ginger-ale and ginger-pop? Then why don’t they make some that is drinkable? Do you know of a decent unimported dry ginger? Ginger-pop, in England, is ginger-beer, an article rarely seen in America. Stone-ginger is the only temperature drink worth a damn, perhaps because, properly made, it contains a certain amount of alcohol. It is brewed, not charged with CO2. Where in America can I buy stone-ginger; that is to say, ginger-beer from a brewery, sold in stone bottles? We say pop in England, but not ginger-pop.”

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