A shaky hanger-on in American English’s crowd of eponyms (words derived from the surnames of real or fictional men and women) is milquetoast, a noun and adjective meaning “timid,” “weak,” or “unassertive.” The word is a play on milk toast, a breakfast dish that has been consumed since the Middle Ages or even earlier.* The player in this case was the New York Tribune cartoonist H. T. Webster, who in the 1920s built his cartoon strip The Timid Soul around a character he named Caspar Milquetoast – in Webster’s words, “the man who speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” Before long, milquetoast had entered our vocabulary to describe anyone or anything seemingly weak and ineffectual.

Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for milquetoast to be misspelled as milktoast. (In 1959, syndicated advice-columnist Ann Landers began a response to a reader who complained that her husband was under the thumb of his domineering mother with, “Why don’t you put the blame where it belongs – right on Caspar Milktoast’s shoulders?”) Though the word is used less frequently today, the milktoast spelling has become increasingly common. Don’t know about you, but when it comes to the resolution of this burning issue I’m not averse to taking the same weak-kneed stance Caspar himself would doubtlessly choose: Let it be… Qué sera, sera… What, me worry?

Timid Soul 1937 Sundays



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