It’s time we stopped trying to cancel the word “mocktail.”
If you do a quick web search for “is it OK to say ‘mocktail’?” the internet will give you a resounding, unequivocal answer: no. This is not a new battle; you can find entire New York Times articles dating back to 2016 dedicated to the troubling nature of this word. To summarize the critiques: The word “mocktail” contains the word “mock,” which has a myriad of negative connotations. It implies mockery; a fake that only adds to the stigma faced by people who—for whatever reason—have decided to remove alcohol from their drinks. In a certain sense, these arguments are compelling. The word “mock” is derived from French and has connotations of deceit, jest, or to consider of little importance. Not great!
I used to be one of the word’s detractors. I considered myself something of an innovator and felt that the word “mocktail” was an antiquated holdover from a time when the best nonalcoholic cocktail you could find was a Shirley Temple. But what the word “mocktail” does have going for it is the fact that everyone seems to know what it means. If you say the word to a random person on the street, there’s a very good chance that they’ll understand you. They’ll know that you’re talking about a mixed drink that resembles an alcohol-containing cocktail but is completely alcohol-free. Would you have the same success with “spirit-free” or “zero-proof”? Maybe if they had a roommate who regularly attended Tales of the Cocktail. Meanwhile, calling them “virgin” ... is weird. And “nonalcoholic cocktail” is a seven-syllable mouthful that stands in grotesque contrast with the efficient two-syllable term at our disposal.
“In my line of work, clarity ranks higher than aesthetics and etymology.”
And it’s not just a matter of aesthetics. Just as you’d want to be careful with food allergies, clarity on whether a drink contains alcohol or not can be a hugely significant—and consequential—distinction for a lot of people. Why not use an unambiguous, commonly understood word?
As a hospitality consultant and cocktail book author who essentially writes instructions for a living, I spend a lot of time thinking about language, which is why my ears always perk up whenever there’s discussion of the “right” or “wrong” way to refer to a particular element of my current professional milieu. If I’ve written a recipe or another piece of instruction and the reader is unclear as to what I mean, I’ve done a bad job. In my line of work, clarity ranks higher than aesthetics and etymology.
A word does not exist before a person first uses it. There is no physical property of the universe that compels us to understand words a certain way. So when people decry the word “mocktail” for its negative connotation, it’s important to understand that that connotation exists in large part because we allow it to. Words change in meaning over time. “Literally” now literally means its own opposite. “Computer” used to be a job title. “Nice” comes from the Latin “nescius,” meaning ignorant. Our language’s rules and definitions describe—rather than enforce—how its users are implementing the toolkit. That’s why the Oxford English Dictionary publishes around 1,000 updates every year.
Language is a consensus and we’re not necessarily bound to history. Sure, “mock” might not have great implications, but are we uncomfortable with using “cocktail” because of the implications of the word “cock”? Never heard that objection before! Words mean what we decide they mean, and it’s time we decided that “mocktail” means something good.