June 22, 2016

Case File #016.06.22: MILQUETOAST

Caspar Milquetoast was the central character in a once popular American comic strip called The Timid Soul, which was created by HT Webster in 1924 and appeared in countless newspapers until shortly after the cartoonist's death in 1952 (his assistant continued the strip for about six months following Webster's passing). Webster himself described Milquetoast as the sort of man who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick,” meaning, of course, that the fellow's excessively craven and submissive nature made him stifle his own predilections and instead submit to the will of the comic strip's other characters. Because the strip was so popular and ubiquitous, Americans soon started to use its main character's name in reference to real-life people—usually men, though sometimes women also—who seemed spineless and overly deferential, and by around 1940, the general noun milquetoast, meaning “a timid, unassertive, and easily manipulated person,” had become firmly ensconced in the English lexicon. As to how HT Webster came up with the name, some etymologists and lexicographers believe the cartoonist was humorously alluding to the weak consistency of the once popular breakfast dish called milk toast (sometimes spelled milk-toast or milktoast), which was typically made by soaking toasted bread in a thin liquid composed of milk, sugar, and butter. But other experts think the cartoonist was making a play on the noun milksop, a term that dates back to the late fourteenth century (Chaucer used it first in The Canterbury Tales), is also an allusion to limp or mushy food, and to this day still means “an effeminate man.”

©2016 Michael R. Gates