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Milquetoast

Definition: A timid, spineless person.

Pronunciation: Milk-tohst

Origin:

1938 – Casper Milquetoast was a character in The Timid Soul – a cartoon drawn by cartoonist H.T. Weber. The cartoon strip appeared in the New York World and, later, in the Herald Tribune. While the cartoon strip ran from 1924, it was not until 1938 that the adoption of the word into normal language was evidenced.

Why This Word?

The classic example of a word in a cartoon strip entering into common usage is that of Superman – think of, for example, pop-culture lyrical references from Joe Brooks semi-lame If I could be a Superman/I’d fly you to the stars and back again to Eminem’s beautifully evocative and poetic Superman song where the lyricist eloquently claims his ability to leap tall hoes in a single bound.

Milquetoast is the anti-superman. A reference to a comic-book character that entered main-stream language, it came to stand for everything that Superman did not. And, rather appropriately, Milquetoast appears now to struggle as a generally accepted word whereas Superman powers on.

How to use the word milquetoast in a sentence?

Milquetoast is a difficult word to use. It is a noun – even though it sounds like an adjective. It feels more correct to describe someone as a milquetoast person than to simply describe them as a milquetoast. And that’s what makes it a difficult word to deploy.

Indeed, whereas Superman has his Eminem’s to rely on to ensure the continued evolution of the word, Milquetoast must rely on an alternative pop culture. Think of Helmet’s song Milquetoast from the 1990s. While the lyrics do actually describe the traits of a Milquetoast – “I’ve saved up my useless thoughts” – they do not actually pluck up the courage to use the word Milquetoast itself – a linguistic timidity worthy of the word.

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Written by Sean Carabini

Seán Carabini is a Dublin-based author. To date, Seán has written the humorous travel memoirs 'Sticking Out in Minnesota' and 'American Road', as well as 'American Road: The poems' - a book of travel poetry related to the memoir. Seán has also developed a podcast based on the book - subscribe to the American Road podcast today! Seán is a committee member of the Irish Writers' Union.

Chrissy Skelton is Seán Carabini's editor. A graduate of the University of Minnesota's Anthropology programme, Chrissy emerged armed with an arsenal of little-known words and cumbersome jargon - all of which will now be off-loaded onto 'unusedwords' readers!

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