How Did Eggnog Get Its Name?

Posted on 16 Mar 2013 19:21

The real question is what the heck is a nog? You probably know that today's eggnog doesn't contain any ingredient called nog. It's basically made from eggs, sugar, and cream, maybe a little nutmeg, and some rum or other spirit. Some of us have been known to put Irish whiskey in it, as well, and in the South, bourbon is used. Brandy is also popular.

Well, one popular theory is that, just as the egg cream once contained eggs and cream (I'm not kidding), eggnog once contained nog.

Dating at least from the 17th century, nog is an English word that is not used today, but it used to refer to a strong ale, which is what eggnog was made with instead of rum or other spirits, at least according to this account. Eggnog actually descended from a hot English drink called posset, which was made with eggs, milk, and wine or ale. There are references to a drink served at taverns called "Dry Sack Posset" which was a mixture of Spanish sherry and milk.

These drinks were served in a "noggin" which was a carved wooden mug or bowl, which came into use at least as early as the late 17th century. Some sources also say that a noggin was a wooden drinking vessel made with wooden staves held together with bands, which were used as early as the 16th century. These "ale tankards" held large drinks of ale or other drink and it is unclear, based on my research, if the word noggin also referred to these, or only to the smaller vessels carved out of solid wood.

Christmas Eggnog

Christmas Eggnog

Christmas Eggnog

Christmas Eggnog

The original Gaelic word was noigean. It is likely that the word nog was used as both an abbreviation for noggin, and as a name for strong ale. It was also used to refer to an amount, as in the amount of liquid a noggin would hold (a quart?1), as well as to the actual contents of such a vessel. Undoubtedly, all these usages are connected. Incidentally, the word nog was also related to mining, as a "nog" was a wooden block which was piled with other blocks to support the roof of a mine. A nog was also related to building, being a square block of wood place into a brick wall to be used as a base for nailing on finishing work, as well as a type of wooden "nail" or peg used in shipbuilding.

Hunters and other such people on the move used to carry their own "noggins." A small hole was drilled in the handle into which a length of leather was looped, so that the cup could be worn handily for easy access.

In Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Jim Hawkins, the main character and narrator, knocks on the captains door with some cooling drinks and medicines. "Jim," says the Captain, "bring me a noggin of rum." We can imagine that the captain could have been referring to an actual noggin with rum in it, or simply to a drink of rum, or to an amount of rum.

Some, therefore, suppose that this drink may have led naturally to the drink being called eggnog, presumably after eggs were added. But the nog may also refer to Norfolk Nog, which was a particularly strong and heady ale, popular in Britain, as in the first theory. The true origin will likely never be known.

Lait de Poule, a drink made with egg yolks, milk, sugar, and sherry, rum, or brandy was served in France in the same period. For some reason, German Biersuppe, (beer soup) is often brought up in connection to this as well, since it is made with egg yolks and ale.

Another theory is that any kind of milk and wine drink was called an "egg n grog." Grog, in those days, simply meant a drink but especially a diluted alcohol drink such as rum thinned with water, which probably originated with the British Navy.

Egg n grog, the theory holds, naturally became shorted to eggnog. The word nog could well have been used to refer to a drink, just as grog was. So the intermittent step may or may not have occurred.

How did Noggin Come to Mean Head?

This question will probably never be truly answered. Earlier words such as cnag or knag or cnaggen or knaggen, with various spellings, referred to a knot or bunch of wood, and could also refer to knocking, as in to knock something, or someone, with such a piece of wood.

Earlier words such as cnag or knag or cnaggen or knaggen, with various spellings, referred to a knot or bunch of wood, and could also refer to knocking, as in to knock something, or someone, with such a piece of wood. These works also could refer to a "bump" as in a bump on a tree OR to a bump on the head! The Irish cnagaim, for instance, referred to a swelling on the head.

So what we see is an association both with wood, and with knocking, bumping, striking, etc. as well as to the swelling such a thing could result in if it is done upside a person's head. If nog and noggin are related to these forms, which seems probable, a noggin would have been used to refer to a bump on the head, or striking someone or something with a piece of wood. The reason I think this is significant is that today, the word noggin when used to refer to the head, is particularly used in associated of getting hit in the head. As in a "bump on the noggin." It also seems to be a pejorative use. As in, when we say to someone "use your noggin," there is a sense that we find them to be particularly thick-headed. As in having a head like a block of wood. Although the true origin of the use is unknown, you can see how all these associations I've discussed could have been muddled in such as way as to result in the word noggin coming to mean head.

Wooden Tankard found on board the ship Mary Rose
image by Peter Crossman of the Mary Rose Trust via wikimedia

Wooden Tankard found on board the ship Mary Rose
image by Peter Crossman of the Mary Rose Trust via wikimedia

The Eggnog Riot

In 1826, there was a riot due to a shortage of eggnog…just kidding. The eggnog riot, as it became to be known, involved Jefferson Davis, future president of the Southern Confederacy, and the famous Confederate General, Robert E. Lee, during his cadet years at West Point. Lee wasn't directly involved, by the way, but was at least in spitting distance from the event.

Although Lee's record itself seems to have no negative reports, his cadet class was apparently a rowdy group and caused enough trouble to threaten the good political standing of the academy. For instance, one week after their appointment to West Point, on the Fourth of July, they got scandalously inebriated, had some kind of 'snake dance' and showed up at a guard post falling down drunk.

This incident resulted in a prohibition against the possession of alcohol at the academy. Nonetheless, as winter approached, Jefferson Davis and some of the other Southerners got a hold of the ingredients to make up some eggnog and have a proper Christmas toast, planned for 1:30 a.m. on Christmas morning.

Lee roomed in the North Barracks and this was where the party took place. Many of Lee's friends were there, in fact, but he and his buddy Joe Johnston declined the invitation. Apparently, the party got out of hand, and guards had to be summoned. Guards were chased with swords, stuff was thrown about the halls, windows and even stair railings were broken, a math professor was hit in the head by a small log, and, to top it all off, the cadets started firing loaded guns. In the end, 70 of the academy's 250 cadets were implicated: Nearly a third. That number of cadets involved in what became known as the Eggnog Riot could have fueled the academy's opponents wish to close the institution.

Thayer, the head honcho of West Point, narrowed the "most guilty" down to 19, and ended up dismissing 12 of them. Thayer got President John Quincy Adams to pardon seven of them or to commute their sentences.

Jefferson Davis and some others got off easier. Davis had slipped away to vomit at a fortunate moment! Lee and his buddy Johnston, of course, goody two shoes that they were, were freed from any guilt.5

And that's the story of the Eggnog Riot. Change the eggnog to beer, and take away the guns, and maybe the swords, and you have a typical weekend night as any college dorm.

1. Coulombe, Charles A. Rum: The Epic Story of the Drink That Conquered the World. New York: Kensington, 2005.
2. Bickerdyke, John. Front Cover 2 ReviewsWrite Review The Curiosities of Ale & Beer: An Entertaining History. New York: Scribner & Welford, 1889.
3. The Encyclopaedic Dictionary: A New & Original Work of Reference to All the Words in the English Language. Vol. 5 (part 1). London: Cassel and, Limited., 1885.
4. Skeat, Walter W. A Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat … Oxford: Clarendon, 1911.
5. Pryor, Elizabeth Brown., and Robert E. Lee. Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee through His Private Letters. New York: Viking, 2007.

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