Cocktail / Cock and Bull Story

Set ‘em up.

Dear Word Detective: I teach Latin and a regular feature of my class is English word study. When possible, I try to liven up discussions on word stems, etc., with stories. Today, as we were reading a story (in Latin) about Europa and the bull (Jupiter), I remembered the expression “a cock and bull story.” After the translation was finished, I asked the class if they knew the expression, and they didn’t, so I explained it to them and got a few lively responses in turn. One student raised a clever question — he wanted to know whether the Cock pub was connected with the origin of the word “cocktail.” I said that I doubted it, but would try to find out. I checked a couple of dictionaries in the library — to no avail. Can you help? — Mary Ann Eiler.

Perhaps. But first, a brief aside. I infer from your narrative that you told your students that “cock and bull story,” meaning a preposterous tale, has something to do with a pub named “The Cock,” or perhaps “The Cock and Bull.” About the best that can be said for that story is that it is not absolutely impossible. Far more likely, however, is that “cock and bull” refers to the tradition of populating parables with talking animals — thus, a “cock and bull story” would be a tale as ludicrous as one of Aesop’s fables.

As to the origin of “cocktail,” I’d have been very surprised had you found a definitive answer in the library, because there isn’t one. There so many unproven theories, however, that one of them almost must be true, although H.L. Mencken judged them all “fishy.”

Leaving aside the theories that link the word to the West African word “kaketal” (scorpion, because of its “sting”), or depend on Aztec princesses named “Xoctil,” or involve implausible stories of drinks stirred with rooster tails, we are left with my favorite, which has the virtue of making sense. A “cocktailed horse” is one whose tail has been bobbed, giving it a jaunty and flamboyant look. It seems reasonable that the “cocktail” took its name from the drink’s alcoholic wallop, sufficient to “cock the tail” (or “knock the socks off”) of an unwary patron.

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