Skip to main content

Milquetoast

Image result for Caspar Milquetoast
Seasons greetings from Caspar Milquetoast





Mild and soothing, milk toast is a comfort food from way back.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a common breakfast dish.  It’s a simple recipe: toasted bread in warm milk, usually with sugar and/or butter added.  For a little more flavor, you could add salt, raisins, pepper, paprika, cinnamon, cocoa, maple syrup, cumin, fruit… whatever you had lying around the kitchen.  Because it was considered such a mild, soothing dish, it was often recommended to convalescents by doctors as a food that would avoid upsetting their patients’ constitutions.

Milk toast is a recipe that Americans borrowed from Europe, where varieties of this simple dish are found all over, probably introduced by immigrants and tinkered with by cooks all over the country.  It doesn’t have to be bland, but it has long had that reputation.

Perhaps because of that reputation, fairly or unfairly, this largely forgotten comfort food made its way into the English language during the height of milk toast’s popularity in America.  In 1924, cartoonist H.T. Webster, who had been drawing a daily panel strip for a dozen years already, introduced a character who would be his most famous creation: Caspar Milquetoast.  Webster’s panel strip went by several different names.  The name he used depended on the subject of the day’s cartoon.  Regular titles included Our Boyhood Ambitions, Life’s Darkest Moments, How to Torture Your Wife, among others.  Cartoons where Caspar Milquetoast showed up were titled The Timid Soul.

And a timid soul Mr. Milquetoast was!  He would balk at any situation where he might have to express an opinion.  It could be about the day’s politics, where he was afraid to offend someone or—worse—have to defend his own position, or it could be about what’s going on on the sports page.  (“Whadd’ya think of th’ Dodgers’ chances this year?” a tough chap sitting next to Mr. Milquetoast once asked.  “Uh, er, ah, I’d rather not say, if you don’t mind,” he replied, fully in character).  When the wind blew his hat off his head and onto the grass next to a “Keep off the grass” sign, he walked off, deciding it was about time he bought a new hat, anyway.

The name seems to play on the word milksop, which is a word that had been used to describe meek, timid people for years before Caspar Milquetoast was first introduced.  Milksop is not very different from milk toast; it’s basically the same recipe, except in milksop, the bread is not toasted first.  By 1930, milquetoast had made its way into English, with strictly American origins, despite the French-seeming spelling of the word’s first syllable.

Webster died in 1952, and his assistant carried on with the strip until his own death in 1953, but his wimp lives on in the English language today.  You don’t need to know where the word came from in order to use it correctly, but if Caspar Milquetoast had his way, he might, um, well, prefer that you find out and that you look up cartoons where he got his start and possibly enjoy them, if you’re so inclined, if you want, but don’t feel you must; it’s all right if you don’t…


Caspar Milquetoast decides he's had just about enough, already.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Betty Crocker: A Brief Biography

Long have our supermarket shelves borne products with the name Betty Crocker.  This name has long since lodged in our heads an essential part of americana.  It seems to evoke the past.  It seems to always have evoked the past, a past when life was simpler and Mother and Grandmother cooked at home, using time tested recipes and only the purest ingredients.  We can’t go back to that simpler, wholesome past, but we can give ourselves a Proustian shot of nostalgia by tasting the past we remember, or the past we only wish we could remember, but know must be so good.  That is the Betty Crocker brand.  You might have seen drawings of her, but have you ever actually seen the legend herself?  Here’s an image of Miss Crocker from a 1953 television ad:


The full "Betty Crocker" TV commercial.

Okay, that’s actually actress Adelaide Hawley, who played Betty Crocker in a number of commercials for the brand from 1949 to 1964.  Betty Crocker was born in 1921, so this representation looks to be…

At, Hashtag, And Per Se

Since the invention of the typewriter in the 1860s, there has been little change to the keyboard used in English.  The position of the letters has remained the same, and the numbers and punctuation have as well. The advent of the personal computer has required additional keys, most of which have found their own standard spots on the keyboard, but for the most part, there haven’t been many changes to the original design.

If you look at the above keyboard, you can see there have been some changes. Keys for fractions don’t really exist anymore; nor does a key to write the ¢ symbol. But the ¢ key on this 1900 model typewriter also includes the @ symbol, which has been common on keyboards since the dawn of typewriters. It’s older than that, even. But of course it is: how else would anyone write an email address? Except… who are you going to email in 1900? No one was emailing anyone before 1972. That’s when programmer Ray Tomlinson invented email. He figured that if you’re going to …

Kick the Football, Charlie Brown

For nearly the entire run of Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip, one running gag has been the football gag.  The gag is simple: Lucy Van Pelt kneels down on the grass, holding a football in place, and tells Charlie Brown to kick it.  Charlie Brown gets a good running start, ready to give it a good, solid kick, but at the last minute, Lucy pulls it away.  The final panel usually has a miserable Charlie Brown laying on the ground while Lucy looks over him, holding the football, telling him in one way or another that he obviously shouldn't have trusted her.
The gag first appeared on November 14, 1951, when the strip was just over a year old.  In the first occurrence, the football was not held by Lucy but by Violet Gray, another little girl in Charlie Brown’s neighborhood.  (Violet would later become a minor character in the strip, and Lucy would become a major one.Lucy wouldn’t appear in the strip until the following year.)  The first football gag is quite a bit different from w…