Got Milque?

A shaky hanger-on in American English’s crowd of eponyms (words derived from the surnames of real or fictional men and women) is milquetoast, a noun and adjective meaning “timid,” “weak,” or “unassertive.” The word is a play on milk toast, a breakfast dish that has been consumed since the Middle Ages or even earlier.* The player in this case was the New York Tribune cartoonist H. T. Webster, who in the 1920s built his cartoon strip The Timid Soul around a character he named Caspar Milquetoast – in Webster’s words, “the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” Before long, milquetoast had entered our vocabulary to describe anyone or anything seemingly weak and ineffectual.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for milquetoast to be misspelled as milktoast. (In 1959, syndicated advice-columnist Ann Landers began a response to a reader who complained that her husband was under the thumb of his domineering mother with, “Why don’t you put the blame where it belongs – right on Caspar Milktoast’s shoulders?”) Though the word is used less frequently today, the milktoast spelling has become increasingly common. Don’t know about you, but when it comes to the resolution of this burning issue I’m not averse to taking the same weak-kneed stance Caspar himself would doubtlessly choose: Let it be… Qué sera, sera… What, me worry?

A fourth old saying is in order as well: “Some things never change.” Both the breakfast dish and the word were preceded seven centuries earlier by the Middle English milksop, defined in the literal sense as “a piece of bread soaked in milk” and figuratively as “an effeminate or spiritless man or youth; one wanting in courage or manliness.”

Milquetoast is positively ornate compared to the synonymous shorties wimp and wuss – neither in much danger of being misspelled. Nevertheless, wimp, which dates from the 1920s, is thought to have come from whimper (the barely audible h easily could have been dropped on the word’s journey to common usage). Wussie came onto the scene in the 1970s, probably as a blend of wimp and pussy,* and soon shed its final syllable to become wuss.

*If you’ve never had milk toast and want to give it a try, here’s the easier-than-pie recipe: Butter a piece of freshly toasted bread and sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar. Tear the toast into bite-size pieces, put them into a small bowl, and top with warm milk.

 **For more blends, some of them surprising, open our Goodies Bag and click on Portmanteau Words.

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