Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Origins of "Eggnog," Holiday Grog

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.


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. 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 more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday December 24th 2009, 6:52 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Ben--you left possets out of the history--not etymologically, but in terms of the recipes. Milk possets were hot milk punches spiked with fortified wine--sack sherry would be what Falstaff used. And milk and egg possets are established in England (OED 15th C.) before the English established a cultural foothold in the New World.

But rum is undoubtedly a New World contribution, as would be sugar. My favorite eggnog recipes are Colonial American; here's one that also uses the native sugar of the North, maple syrup.

Per serving:
1 whole large or extra large egg (or if you are feeling industrious, separate the egg and whip up a meringue from the white to top the eggnog)
1 oz maple syrup, 1 tsp vanilla
1-2 oz milk and or cream (your butterfat preferences are up to you, and the more milk/cream, the more like a punch, and less alcoholic)
1-2 oz (your alcohol preferences are also up to you) Captain Morgan Private Stock spiced rum (not the Captain's cheap stuff! -and use the best ingredients you can otherwise--the best tasting cream, New Zealand eggs, high-end vanilla, but try Grade B maple syrup, which has more maple kick).
Shake over ice in a cocktail shaker, serve in a short glass (I freeze mine), top with meringue (or whipped cream) and sprinkle with nutmeg to taste.

You can scale this up for a crowd, mix in a blender and chill for a few hours. You may need to reblend before serving as the ingredients do separate if you don't (and you shouldn't) use a stabilizer.

Merry Xmas, Happy New Year!
Friday December 25th 2009, 12:36 PM
Comment by: Luis M A. (Saltillo Mexico)
I could only add to this thorouhg research on eggnog that there is a simmilar, though not exactly the same, drink in Mexico. Supposedly, it was brought about by the spanish missionaries that arrived to "La Nueva Espana" in order to christianize natives. They handled the recipe to the Clarisa nuns that resided within a convent; this soft drink had no alcohol whatsoever and was made with a mixture of milk, eggs, cinnamon and sugar. Nowadays can be found on liquor stores under the name of "Rompope" which now has a sligth alcohol taste.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year
Wednesday January 6th 2010, 7:23 PM
Comment by: WilliaMITCHELL (Saratoga Spr'gs.,, NY)
Gosh-a-Rooties!!! I've seen, and heard sssooooo many eggnog (or is it egg-nog) (or just egg nog?!) stories, I'm beginning to wonder if there are as many (or more) different 'nogs, say for Christmastide (the Twelve of Christmas)?
Oh, what the heck...histories are at least, interesting reading! Thanx!
Wednesday December 29th 2010, 1:18 PM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
At Christmas dinner this year, our daughter summed up the religious belief of our family. My Taiwanese wife couldn't understand the connection between belief and Christmas drinks. "What do you mean by eggnog-sticks," she asked.

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