The New Vocabulary of Cocktails.

Emma Janzen writes for Punch about the new language of drinking establishments:

Since the word “cock-tail” was first defined in The Balance, and Columbian Repository in 1806 [vol. 5, p. 146], bartenders and drinkers alike have played a role in developing a unique, varied and at times amusing lexicon to describe the budding world surrounding the “stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters.”

The late 1800s gave us words like “syllabub,” “smash,” “sling,” “pony,” “toddy” and “nightcap” to describe popular serves and measurements of the era. The cocktail dark ages of the 1970s and ’80s, meanwhile, saw the rise of free-pouring and flair—two common bartending methodologies—and the use of “’tini” to mean anything but a genuine Martini.

Now, with cocktail culture saturating the country anew, we’re in the middle of a glittering renaissance of bar lingo. The most common terms thrown about today are both functional and fun; they also offer a vivid snapshot of the current state of the industry in the U.S. and the way it is evolving. Reflecting the increasing crossover between restaurants and bars, for instance, many of-the-moment twists of the tongue are pulled directly from the restaurant industry (think “86’d,” “heard” and “behind.”). At Silver Lyan in Washington, D.C., for example, bartenders address each other as “chef,” as a sign of deference and respect, an organic evolution of their in-house language that predates The Bear. And as bars continue to adopt high-level scientific techniques, the nuances of redistilling, centrifuges, rotovaps and clarification demand their own attendant terms. “Recomposed lime,” for instance, is the name given by London bar Shapes to leftover lime juice that has been vacuum-distilled and then adjusted with salts and acids to replicate fresh lime juice as closely as possible in a shelf-stable form.

Much of today’s insider slang and phraseology originates from specific bars, organic developments born out of the culture and clientele of a particular outpost. Some of these terms have gone on to become universal (like the Ferrari, a 50/50 mix of Fernet-Branca and Campari), while others remain no-less-compelling localized oddities (see: “black toothpaste,” the term given to Fernet by Salt Lake City’s Water Witch). Inside jokes and shorthand abound.

She then provides “a non-exhaustive guide to the new vocabulary of cocktails” that is a lot of fun, with entries like amaroulette (“Originated at the Fifty Fifty Gin Club in Cincinnati, this term is used by guests when they want the bartender to pick what shot of amaro they’ll drink”) and close-looping (“The practice of using ingredients in their entirety to create a zero-waste drink”). Skål!


  1. Of the mat shot, we do not speak.

  2. The Ferrari sounds legit, but I worry about reckless mixologists creating Frankencocktails purely for the stunt name. Nobody subscribes to the Slow Comfortable Screw Against the Wall for the articles.

  3. “Poo” for champagne was common among the Sloane Rangers; did they skip over “shampoo” altogether?

  4. David Marjanović says

    Obligatory link to this comment and three comments later.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    writes for Punch

    Caused me a doubletake: has the age-old staple of UK dentists’ waiting rooms been raised, zombie-like (still) from the dead?

    Apparently not. Apocalypse postponed …

  6. Your dentists are to be commended. U.S. ones have People (nice things about celebrities) and Us (what celebrities wear), as do all doctors’ offices.

  7. Caused me a doubletake

    Yes, me too. I almost added “(not that Punch).”

  8. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Most doctors and dentists here have given up on the magazine pile, since people are stuck inside their phones anyway. (I don’t know who buys the four competing weekly “royals and TV programme” periodicals that I see in the supermarket. Possibly people of my mother’s generation, though she as a quondam research librarian will always bring a book).

  9. January First-of-May says

    Yes, me too. I almost added “(not that Punch).”

    Yeah, would probably have helped me too; I was fairly sure it was that one, and was surprised it lasted this long.

    (TIL that it lasted until 1992; I would have guessed that it either went bust many decades earlier or was still around. Apparently there was a revival in 1996-2002 but it had little in common with the original.)

  10. The late 1800s gave us words like “syllabub,” “smash,” “sling,” “pony,” “toddy” and “nightcap” to describe popular serves and measurements of the era.

    This article was interesting in general, and I appreciate the way the author has promoted my favorite, mezcal, in her other articles, but I don’t think any of the words listed above originated in the late 19th century (in the relevant senses)—if that is what the phrase “the late 1800s gave us” is intended to mean. Most of them seem earlier, sometimes much earlier. Let’s look at what the OED has to say…

    syllabub: ‘a drink or dish of milk (freq. as drawn from the cow) or cream, curdled by the admixture of wine, cider, or other acid, and often sweetened and flavored’. This goes back to at least the first half of the 16th century… The OED has a cite from A New Interlude Called Thersites (sometimes attributed to Nicholas Udall), from around 1537. Thersites tells his mother that Ulysses has invited them to visit him in letter brought Telemachus, who has come to Thersites’ mother to be cured of worms…

    Mother, by his son he hath send me a letter,
    Promising hereafter to be to us better,
    And you, and I with my great club,
    Must walk to him, and eat a sillabub

    (From a modern edition; to read the larger context in the modern edition, see here, p 422.)

    smash: ‘an American beverage made of spirit, ice, water, sugar, and flavoured with mint’. The OED has a citation from 1850: ‘Or didst thou at the Pemberton absorb a brandy-smash?’ (see page 7 here). Doubtless this sense of smash was already current somewhat before this poem was composed. (The OED definition is similar to that for julep, for which the OED’s first cite is 1787: see p. 215, column 1, here).

    sling: ‘an American drink composed of brandy, rum, or other spirit, and water, sweetened and flavoured’. The OED has a cite from 1792. ‘Rum shall ne’er meet my lips… in shape of toddy, punch, grog, sling or dram’. See the middle of column one on page 280 here. (Complete text here, beginning on page 33.)

    pony:regional. ‘A small glass or measure of alcohol’. The OED has a cite already from 1708: ‘For 2 dozen poiny of wine pd to Sʳ H Bunbury [there was paid] £1 5ˢ 6ᵈ.’ Diligent searching on Google books might even turn up earlier instances. I have not tried.

    toddy: for the sense ‘palm wine’, first cite probably from 1611, ‘A goodly Countrey… abounding with wild Date Trees… whence they draw a liquor called Tarrie or Sure’ (in context here); the Sure in the first quote must be Marathi सूर sūr, descending from Vedic súrā, some kind of strong alcoholic drink. For the more relevant sense, ‘a drink typically consisting of whisky or other spirit, (hot) water, sugar or honey, and sometimes lemon or spices, often considered warming, soothing, or restorative’, the first cite from is from 1741: ‘I asked the Landlord to make me a Pint of Toddy, he asked me whether I would have it hot or cold, I told him a little warm.’ The cited passage can be read in context here, middle of page 16. (For the background, see for example the Wikipedia here.)

    nightcap: ‘a drink, esp. an alcoholic one, taken at the end of an evening, often immediately before going to bed in order to induce sleep’. The first cite in the OED from 1814: ‘Hollo Chambermaid—you have forgot my Night-Cap.’ For more on this, see the excellent blog entry by Pascal Tréguer here. A clearer image of the cartoon here.

  11. The magazine pile is still around at most doctors I frequent, although indeed almost nobody seems to read them. I guess they now let them gather dust indefinitely, instead of replacing them once a decade as they used to 😉

  12. I guess they now let them gather dust indefinitely, instead of replacing them once a decade as they used to

    Gave me a chuckle!

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    For me, the archetypal magazine-pile publication will always be Reader’s Digest; in fact, I don’t recall ever have seen a copy in any other context …

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    In the U.S., at least, Reader’s Digest had a huge circulation in its heyday – several multiples of all the collective medical waiting rooms in the country. Maybe less market penetration overseas, and I am not surprised that David Eddyshaw was never in my paternal grandmother’s living room in the Seventies or any comparable middle-brow American home.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    I personally don’t get the two different “Punch” publications mixed up. Maybe that’s because I’m more familiar than others with the one linked to in this post; maybe (but this could be related) because they are mere homophones/homonyms. The old British one is, I assume, the loanword from Italian found in “Punch and Judy” puppetry; the new American one is the loanword from Hindi used in reference to (typically alcoholic) beverages.

  16. Hey, we had a subscription to Reader’s Digest when I was young. For those of us who grew up in largely bookless households it was a veritable treasure house of fascinating information. Along with National Geographic.

  17. @Xerib: Yeah, I immediately spotted that syllabub was much older than the nineteenth century, as a synonym for posset.*

    “Sillabub” is also one of the names of the non-canonical cats in American productions** of Cats, singing backup for “Memory”*** and in its reprise. When I saw a touring production of Cats, the actress playing Sillabub was so bad she should have been fired as soon as she hit the dressing room. Even before her singing in the second act (which was the worst vocal performance of the ensemble), her dancing had been so consistently and noticeably bad that it was distracting from the show.

    @David Eddyshaw: My ex-wife subscribed to Reader’s Digest, it having been a thing in her family growing up. It is (or was) not the worst “general interest” publication**** around, certainly better than something like People.

    * Although it was not the first time I encountered the word posset, it was the British television version of The Box of Delights (starring Patrick Troughton as Ramon Lully*****) that permanently fixed the term in my memory.

    ** She apparently had a different name in the original West End production. God knows why, since as a minor character she is never named on stage.

    *** I’ve always felt that it said something, although I’m not sure what, that “Memory,” by far the most famous song from Cats, is also the only song that does not actually have lyrics drawn from Old Possum’s poetry.

    **** I associate “general interest” as a description of magazines with a filmstrip we watched in 1986 (as part of the school district’s “Talented and Gifted” program) about “hype” in advertising. As a case study, it discussed the marketing of the 1977 film The Deep.****** It showed examples of advertisements placed in different kinds if publications. For example, in magazines aimed at men, the ads featured larger pictures of Jacqueline Bisset. One of the ad categories was the one placed in “general interest” magazines, and the ad in question frankly seemed a lot less interesting than most of the others, with or without Jacqueline Bisset.

    ***** Yes, that’s a spoiler, but really now….

    ****** The extraordinary success of the film version of Jaws meant that (my kids’ distant cousin) Peter Benchley had a bunch of his subsequent nautical novels also made into films. Some featured some of the same actors as well, like Robert Shaw in The Deep, but none of them had Spielberg’s directorial genius. The Deep was the first one after Jaws, and it was marketed like an incipient blockbuster, which it did not become. Weirdly, in retrospect, that filmstrip never mentioned Jaws as the reason why The Deep was so hyped, although it did conclude with the observation that The Deep was ultimately a very ordinary adventure movie, most notable a few years later not for anything endogenous, but rather as a marketing case study. By the time I was in college, Benchley adaptations had been reduced to television miniseries. I only remember The Beast because my dorm floor, The BEAΣT From the EAΣT, naturally organized viewing parties for the two-night event, mosy of which were spent mocking the miniseries for its mediocre production values and for being a painful obvious imitation of Jaws.

  18. Stu Clayton says

    Hey, we had a subscription to Reader’s Digest when I was young.

    Same here. I read the jokes and the “word power” section (as it’s called today, anyway). And many many digested novels (by Pearl “S” Buck etc). Without a solid grounding in bourgeois prose, I would not have appreciated Naked Lunch as much a few years later.

    The household was not exactly bookless. I dipped into my father’s not-well-hidden copies of Psychopathia Sexualis and Peyton Place, so I knew about weirdos – and had my first intimations of what life held in store for me.

    We also had National Geographic, from which I learned how fish do it.

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    I have no wish to impugn the taste of readers of Reader’s Digest.

    It is all too possible that my own impressions of that publication are unduly coloured by the memories of toothache and the sound of high-pitched drills …

  20. PlasticPaddy says

    @stu, de
    I wanted to formulate something along the lines of Stu’s post but with more of a sociological angle (Stu would do this better but has not). I think there was certainly a market among the educated merchant/shopkeeper class (also working class eager to “move up”) in the US in the period, say 1940-1965 for especially anecdotal, exemplary and “condensed Classic” material published by Readers’ Digest. Maybe in Britain there were other publications serving this need, or maybe the relevant class of readers had other topics of conversation requiring different “priming”.

  21. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I absolutely loved the Reader’s Digest aged about 9 – I think partly because you never quite knew what you were going to get next, a thing I still enjoy. And there was always a dramatic and detailed story at the end – a tightrope walker who had a leg amputated, another person who had the foot of their amputated leg put on backwards to become a new knee, some people who survived a long time in the sea, the education of some profoundly deaf children, and many more that I have forgotten now.

    (But I could never get on with condensed (or any kind of abridged) books. It’s the details I like.)

  22. The adverb up, meaning for a drink to be served chilled with ice but strained of it, puzzles me. I can invent a semantic path from one to the other, but I don’t know the actual one.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    @Y: The relevant sense of “up” is in some sources claimed to be a clipping of “straight up.” I don’t know if that makes it less mysterious to you or not, although “straight up” for “once suitably mixed/shaken, pour it into the glass without putting anything else like ice into the glass” makes sense to me. Obviously there’s a necessary background assumption that the ice in the shaker or mixing glass will be strained out during the pouring process.

  24. In the Sixties there was actually a high school edition of Reader’s Digest, not simplified (huh?) but provided with study materials so that teachers could instruct us in proper American values like overthrowing the democratic government of Brazil.

  25. Stu Clayton says

    @Paddy: Maybe in Britain there were other publications serving this need, or maybe the relevant class of readers had other topics of conversation requiring different “priming”.

    It would interest me as well to learn something about that. JenInE and others remember the RD from their childhoods and dentist appointments, but no other publications are mentioned.

    In the States RD had no serious competitor for inoffensive shrunken novels, I think. What did the British middle classes do in their spare time ? Perhaps they preferred to read uncut all the wonderful novelists in their midst. Or they didn’t have much spare time – them was harder years economically than in the USA.

    … but with more of a sociological angle (Stu would do this better but has not).

    Where did you get that idea ? I know a lot about nothing, and can comment on it at eye-watering length. I think you’ve been had.

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    The “condensation” approach was distinctive to RD, but once upon a time there were a wide range of “general interest” magazines in the U.S. that appealed to the mythologized “little old lady from Dubuque” (the hypothetical reader to whom the founders of The New Yorker snootily claimed they did not wish to appeal). My maternal grandparents were faithful subscribers to the Saturday Evening Post. Other folks’ grandparents (or great-grandparents) were devoted to Collier’s. And there were a number of other such publications for middle-brow literate folks who did not wish to have their neighbors think they might be actual intellectuals or bohemians or suchlike weirdos. I’m sure there’s a literature on their decline: some mix of audience fragmentation and replacement with more narrow-focus periodicals and television taking over. The latter phenomenon of course made TV Guide in its day one of the largest-circulation periodicals in the U.S., and one of the most profitable pieces of Walter Annenberg’s publishing empire (although he also had e.g. the Daily Racing Form, which attracted a smaller but very devoted readership).

  27. J.W. Brewer says

    Classic dentist’s-office-waiting-room periodicals I remember from my Seventies childhood, excluding titles specifically aimed at children, included _Sunset_ (offering coverage of up-to-date bourgeois/suburban California living that was somewhat aspirational-to-daydreamish in an East Coast context) and, in the case of at least one medical professional whose office manager must have been (in the technical sense) a Useful Idiot, _Soviet Life_ (“never a blatant Soviet propaganda tool,” sez wikipedia rather defensively and unconvincingly).

  28. David Eddyshaw says

    Country Life tended to turn up in the more aspirational sort of dentists’ waiting rooms.

    Probably intended to pass the time for those less interested in bourgeois pursuits like reading. (Nice pictures, as I recall.)

  29. Lars Mathiesen says

    My grandmother had a garden shed full of issues of Det Bedste fra Readers’ Digest, a rich source of factoids that I have hopefully shed most of over the intervening fifty-plus years. I recall nattering on at length about that in earlier threads, so I’ll stop now.

  30. David Marjanović says

    I read boxes of Das Beste aus Reader’s Digest when I was little. Somebody must have subscribed to it in the 60s through maybe 80s, but I have no idea who or why.

    “never a blatant Soviet propaganda tool,” sez wikipedia rather defensively and unconvincingly

    It says: “While never a blatant Soviet propaganda tool, Soviet Life did hew to the government line.” I think “blatant” is doing most of the work here. At the top of the article it says “a ‘polite propaganda’ tool”.

  31. The German edition of RD was also a feature of many waiting rooms in my childhood, and, like Jen, I loved it for its variety. Other magazines probably had something to do with the specific hobbies of specific doctors; I distinctly remember Jagd und Hund (“Hunt and Hound”) and magazines about fishing at a (very good) orthopedist whom I visited regularly.

  32. @Stu (replying to @Paddy) It would interest me as well to learn something about that. JenInE and others remember the RD …

    I first came across RD in Britain late 60’s’/70’s in Youth Hostels. It may be relevant they were decidedly hairshirt in those days: no TV even if there was electricity.

    When my parents bought a holiday house early 70’s (prefab chalet on a cliff-top, it was freezing outside the Summer holidays) the previous owners (retired couple who’d lived there) left a stash of several hundred RDs.

    The German edition of RD ,,,

    Did that also feature ‘Humour in Uniform’? Typically demonstrating the idiocy of new recruits, and/or the worse idiocy of top brass/inflexible regulations. Distinctly WWII barracks feel.

  33. Did that also feature ‘Humour in Uniform’?
    I don’t remember seeing something like that in a German RD, and I think I would if it was there, as I was always looking out for funnies.

  34. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Even at the distance of 50 years, I’m pretty sure that there were no drawn “funnies.” The little text vignettes were probably all meant to be funny, though at 13 I may not have detected that. A “Humour in Uniform” text piece would have fitted right in, to the extent that its presence or absence has not left a lasting impression.

  35. Humor in Uniform

    If laughter is the best medicine, then look no further to cure whatever ails you. The column “Offbase,” formally known as “Humor in Uniform,” has appeared in the Reader’s Digest magazine for over half a century, and has published more than 3,500 jokes, quotes, and funny stories from the more than a million readers who have submitted them.

  36. Even at the distance of 50 years, I’m pretty sure that there were no drawn “funnies.”
    Yes, that’s how I remember it as well. There were humorous anecdotes along the lines of “cute things kids say” and similar fare. Maybe “funnies” is the wrong word for that.

  37. David Marjanović says

    Same here.

  38. Reader’s Digest

    My grandfather had once or twice subscribed to this for a good while and had plenty of numbers stashed at our family’s summer cottage (one run from IIRC 1958 to 1965, another 1987 to 1990 – I never got around to asking if this was a legitimate gap or if the missing years had been thrown away earlier, hmm could maybe still ask my mother though). I also got my start on reading the short joke columns, and some years later went from there on to the pop science and human interest stories. Things like the abridged prose and bygone foreign politics were almost all skipped until a couple of particularly boring and rainy summers in my teens.

    Humor in Uniform, or in Finnish rather, the more laconic Sotilashuumoria ‘Military humor’ was, yes, a mainstay all along. Mostly translated I figure, very little of it involved Finland’s own military service even though conscripts off duty at barracks surely must’ve been a regular part of the readerbase (by my time for that I was saturated though, and anyway I served at one of our larger garrisons which had an actual library, with even e.g. computers for internet access). The later years of RD I think occasionally added other thematic humor columns too besides this and the generic jokes or generic funny real life accidents ones. Drawn cartoons I recall only finding from one or two volumes ever; still more than zero though.

    The weirdest doctor’s office literature I remember seeing must be commercial catering catalogues…

  39. We just made an unexpected trip to the dentist (my wife found a tooth in the cookie she was eating), and I took the opportunity to photograph the reading matter on display. There’s a magazine rack with Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Essence, Southern Living (why?), the Nation, and the New Yorker, and a round table in the side waiting area with various poetry anthologies and a copy of the Nation. (No RD.) That’s just a small taste of why it’s such a great dentist’s office (they are also very good with teeth and small children).

  40. I once found at a laundromat I was using an issue of Modern Ferret. Nothing else was ever that good.

  41. The true aficionados only read Classical Ferret.

  42. The few connoisseurs read only the Latin edition, MVSTELA PVTORIVS FVRO.

  43. David Eddyshaw says

    The more cosmopolitan among us prefer Le Nouveau Furet.

  44. I, of course, read only Das Anti-Frettchen. Talk about invigorating polemic!

  45. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve always felt that the Mustelids should be one of those early Islamic dynasties.

  46. an unexpected trip to the dentist (my wife found a tooth in the cookie she was eating)

    One hopes you found also where the tooth was missing from; it is also annoying finding unexpected teeth in bags of flour but I find dentists unlikely to help much with that situation 😉

    (Comment inspired by just having extracted a bony shard from my gums while reading this thread, presumably a leftover from a wisdom tooth removal four months ago but they don’t come labeled.)

  47. @David Eddyshaw: Shockingly (or not), there are Google hits for “Mustelid Caliphate.” Obviously, it’s from one of those nearby parallel worlds where people like John Cowan vacation twice a year.

  48. I invented (for a novel) a Middle Eastern country which, before its Islamic revolution, was ruled by the Arakhnids.

  49. David Marjanović says

    Shockingly (or not), there are Google hits for “Mustelid Caliphate.”

    Also featuring Super Finland whose boldface appears to be part of its name.

  50. people like John Cowan vacation twice a year

    Rather more often that that, thanks to my compact syllogismobile (warning TVTropes).

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