The first time I can recall seeing this word was in an English translation of Peter Handke’s theatre piece Offending the Audience. At the beginning of the piece, the performers come forward gradually, speaking quietly and then more loudly, saying various words just as words, not directed at the audience, and in random order; the words are “You chuckle-heads, you small-timers, you nervous nellies, you fuddy-duddies, you windbags, you sitting ducks, you milquetoasts.”
I figured out pretty readily what the word was intended to mean. After all, milk and toast are two rather bland, safe foods, and the addition of the Frenchified spelling milque makes it even more effete and effiminate. Clearly this was a word for some feckless lily-livered poltroon. Right?
Right, in fact. It has various synonyms and near-synonyms: sissy, namby-pamby, jellyfish, pantywaist, doormat, nebbish, wimp, milksop… They all have their variations of tone, flavour, level, and expected context. Milquetoast, for its part, thanks at least in part to its pseudo-French spelling, seems like the sort of word that should have rococo curlicues on it. In truth, it strikes me as the sort of word that comes from, perhaps, a character in an English comedy of the Restoration era (with its characters named such as Millamant, Dorimant, Pinchwife, Flutter, Fainall, Witwoud, Wishfort, Bellair…). So utterly English and of that era, don’t you think?
Well, it is indeed an eponym; it is from a character named Caspar Milquetoast. (By coincidence, another play by Handke I have in the same volume as Offending the Audience is called Kaspar, but there’s no relation.) But the character is from a newspaper comic (a one-panel comic, not a strip) of the early-to-mid-20th century. An American newspaper comic, at that. The strip was called The Timid Soul; it was drawn by H.T. Webster. As you may guess, Caspar Milquetoast was the aforementioned timid soul, a thin, pale, bespectacled fellow with a white moustache. You can see three examples at john-adcock.blogspot.com/2009/01/timid-soul.html and another at www.comicartfans.com/gallerypiece.asp?piece=454658&gsub=5381 . We get from these the impression that Milquetoast was something of a flutterbudget, too, in his effete way.
You might have noticed that one of the synonyms for milquetoast is milksop. Its spelling is plainer and more English, but the word has a similar feel when spoken – milk is soft until the /k/, and sop has a /s/ and a voiceless stop like toast, making it whispery and crisp – and a similar limpness. In fact, sop is certainly limper than toast in its imagery and sound, which is compensated for in milquetoast by the Frenchified spelling. In the end, milksop does seem rather like a low-rent, proletarian version of the salaried (or private-income) milquetoast. And what means sop? Why, a piece of bread soaked in liquid. So a milksop is food for babies.
But! Before milksop was ever used to refer literally to food for babies, it was used to refer to a feeble, effete, wimpy person. By Chaucer, in fact, even (from the Monk’s Tale): “Allas …that evere I was shape To wedden a milksop or a coward ape.” The literal reference doesn’t show up in literature until almost a century later. And then, about 535 years after Chaucer, we got Caspar Milquetoast, whose name passed into common usage for the same meaning as milksop within a few years.
Well. Let me now toast H.T. Webster and his character with some milk… or, well, the last of the eggnog, what the heck. Even if Caspar would be too afraid to drink it.
Thanks to Laura, who commented on my blog posting of onychophagia, for suggesting milquetoast.