A WORD IN THE HAND: MILQUETOAST
PC brigade might milk a cartoon muppet as a sop to human kindness
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
In a letter published in Business Day last Friday, Martin van Staden of Randburg made reference to “milquetoast suburban liberals”.
It would appear that on the day of writing Martin was not overflowing with the milk of human kindness towards milquetoast suburbanites. Perhaps he’d be less lactose-intolerant of melktert plattelanders.
The reason Martin’s letter piqued my interest, however, is because I have not seen the word “milquetoast” (a noun that happily doubles as an adjective) for ages, and its absence has made me feel sad – almost as tearful, in fact, as I might feel if I had spilt milk on my favourite jersey (the smell never washes out, you know).
Let’s milk this subject until the cows come home. In the 1600s no one cried over spilt milk. They wept over shed milk. The Online Etymology Dictionary claims that tears spilt over a pool of milk first appeared in writing in 1836 in a humorous essay by Canadian writer Thomas C Haliburton. The Phrase Finder disputes this, citing Jonathan Swift’s 1738 trilogy Polite Conversation, in which the satirist said: “‘Tis a folly to cry for spilt milk.”
The Phrase Finder’s essay includes the observation that “spill” comes from the Old English spillan, which meant to destroy, kill, or mutilate. Perhaps grief over spilt milk had more violent associations than the upsetting of jugs over woolly jumpers.
When it comes to the “milk of human kindness”, all sources agree that this phrase was coined by William Shakespeare in 1605. Today we understand it as a gentle quality to be admired, but Lady Macbeth, who said it first, was being her usual scathing self when she said to her husband: “Yet do I fear thy nature, it is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way.”
Lady M was implying that Mac was far too much of a milksop to act on her ambitions. “Milksop”, literally a bit of bread soaked in milk until soggy, was the precursor to cornflakes. In the 14th century, milksop became an insult for those who allowed themselves to be bullied. Today we might call them doormats, muppets, wusses, or spineless jellyfish (which is tautology but sounds good).
Without milksop we would probably not have milquetoast. Caspar Milquetoast was a comic character created in 1924 by US cartoonist HT Webster. Caspar starred in a comic strip called The Timid Soul, and he was a milksop of the first degree.
In one famous frame, poor old Milquetoast is standing drenched without an umbrella on a city pavement in the driving rain, trying hard to look neither cross nor conspicuous and thinking: “Well, I’ll wait one more hour for him and if he doesn’t come then he can go and borrow that $100 from someone else.”
A popular Christmas card in the 1930s featured the limp-whiskered Milquetoast muttering from behind his hand: “If you won’t think it presumptuous of me I’d like to – uh – er – wish you a merry – or at least as reasonably pleasant a Christmas as we are entitled to, things – uh – er – being what they are.”
That could be any of the politically correct template greetings that do the rounds on social media today. Martin was spot on in his use of the word: as a suburban liberal of the 21st century, Caspar Milquetoast would have fitted right in.