Is there any drink more seasonal than eggnog, that Yuletide mixture of sweetened milk, beaten eggs, and (at least traditionally) liquor? As we head into the peak time for eggnog consumption, let's put aside our mugs and stop to consider where the word eggnog actually comes from.
The egg part of eggnog (or egg nog) is transparent enough, but no one is quite sure how we ended up with nog. Nog shows up in the late seventeenth century as a regional term for strong beer in East Anglia, the easternmost region of England. A fellow named Humphrey Prideaux wrote a letter in 1693 from the county of Norfolk, describing "a bottle of old strong beer, which in this country they call 'nog.'" One theory for the origin of nog links it to noggin — which, before it became slang for "head," could refer to "a small mug" or "a small drink of spirits." Another suggestion is that the word is related to the Scottish term nugg or nugged ale, meaning "ale warmed with a hot poker."
In any case, by the late eighteenth century, someone had hit upon the bright idea of making an eggy kind of nog. All evidence points to a colonial North American origin for the beverage. The clergyman and philologist Jonathan Boucher is reported to have written a poem mentioning eggnog around 1775, when he was a rector of a parish in Maryland:
Fog-drams i' th' morn, or (better still) egg-nogg,
At night hot-suppings, and at mid-day, grogg,
My palate can regale...
Boucher's poem wasn't published until after his death some thirty years later, but word sleuths have found a number of other eighteenth-century American sources for eggnog. The earliest known print appearance, found by Yale law librarian Fred Shapiro, is in a New Jersey newspaper in March 1788:
A young man with a cormerant appetite, voraciously devoured, last week, at Connecticut farms, thirty raw eggs, a glass of egg nog, and another of brandy sling. (New-Jersey Journal, Mar. 26, 1788, p. 2)
Later that same year, a writer in Philadelphia's Independent Gazetteer (Oct. 16, 1788) complained of some alcoholic indigestion: "when wine and beer, punch and eggnog meet, instantly ensues a quarrel."
An early example of eggnog tied to Christmas revelry, found by independent scholar Joel S. Berson, appears in the (Norfolk) Virginia Chronicle of January 26, 1793. A correspondent to the newspaper recounted:
On last Christmas Eve several gentlemen met at Northampton court-house, and spent the evening in mirth and festivity, when EGG-NOG was the principal Liquor used by the company. After they had indulged pretty freely in this beverage, a gentleman in company offered a bet that not one of the party could write four verses, extempore, which should be rhyme and sense...
A fellow carouser at this eggnog-fest took up the challenge and wrote a long paean to the favored drink, reading in part:
'Tis Egg-Nog now whose golden streams dispense
Far richer treasures to the ravish'd sense.
The Muse from Wine derives a transient glare,
But Egg-Nog's draughts afford her solid fare.
Yet another bit of eggnog doggerel (eggnoggerel?) shows up in a 1795 collection of poems by Philip Morin Freneau:
To the sign of the Anchor we then were directed,
Where captain O'Keef a fine turkey dissected;
And Bryan O'Bluster made love to egg-nog.
If you're wondering what ingredients could possibly inspire such versifying, a book from 1799 describes how the drink was prepared at an inn near Baltimore:
The American travellers, before they pursued their journey, took a hearty draught each, according to custom, of egg-nog, a mixture composed of new milk, eggs, rum, and sugar, beat up together.
As with many other unusual terms for food and drink, eggnog lends itself to spurious etymologies. Barry Popik, word-myth debunker extraordinaire, has noted one bogus explanation that has been making the rounds lately. Some claim that the concoction was originally called "egg and grog," and that this was shortened to "egg 'n' grog," and finally to "eggnog." That would be a fine derivation, if only there was a shred of evidence that anyone in the olden days ever called it "egg and grog." You'll find the story all over the news these days, but don't believe it! The earliest suggestion I've found for the "egg and grog" origin is in a 1980 article in the Chicago Tribune — a couple of centuries too late to be credible.
Speaking of eggnog apocrypha, there's also a recipe floating around that is supposedly from the "kitchen papers" of George Washington at Mount Vernon. I have no idea if it's legitimate, but you can check out a modern version of the recipe here. Enjoy your eggnog, but as always, please etymologize responsibly.
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer