Caspar Milquetoast

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Tue Dec 28 21:58:01 UTC 2010

[Caspar] Milquetoast Dec 1931 --> Sep 1931 --> [other 1931] --> 1927 [?]

I mentioned previously Fred Kogos's A Dictionary of Yiddish Slang&Idioms
(1967). One thing that struck me as I was browsing it today before
returning to the library was the entry for Shnook (not Snook, as I've
occasionally heard and read):

> Shnook A patsy, a dolt, a sucker, a sap, a meek person easy to impose
> on; Casper Milquetoast; easy-going, gullible

Perfectly normal entry... Except that the original Milquetoast character
was Caspar, not Casper. Could there be some confusion with Casper the
Friendly Ghost? Not really--a quick search of GB finds hits from the
1940s and 1950s with "Casper". A 1942 Billboard confirms this with full
( This required a refinement--too many hits to sift

An earlier snippet points to 1936 Journal of the NEA
( and others 1935 Harper's (, to
1934 Printing Art ( --the snippet shows both the
quote and the date), and to 1934 Time ( --also shows
the date and the clip). The 1935 Harper's quote is most telling:

> The young man cried over his shoulder, "Casper Milquetoast in person!"
> whatever that meant.

OED has the origin pegged to the right character and cartoon, but the
earliest cite is from 1931--the year the original publication (New York
World) ceased and reprints were picked up in book form before the strip
went back into syndication. It even lists 1924 as original creation
date. But there is still room to find a transferred meaning example
between 1924 and 1931 (the 1931 quote does not refer to the character
but to someone who is ascribed the characteristics of Caspar
Milquetoast). Wiki claims that "most British English dictionaries" lack
a milquetoast entry (Collins, Longman, Chambers--not sure how this
qualifies as "most"), making this mostly an American expression at some
point in history.

The oddest thing is that the 1931 LC Catalog of Copyright Entries, shows
Webster's book title as "The timid soul, a pictorial account of the life
and times of Casper Milquetoast". So it was "Casper" from the very
beginning--no mention of this fact anywhere.

Proof positive is a 1931 Life magazine [the page is visible as 29, but
there is no indication of the issue]:
> Anyway, let's make it unanimous and say this is a picture book for the
> one man power in every American home. Are we timid? Casper Milquetoast
> says we are. — Thomas L. Masson.

It seems likely that this line is from a review of Webster's book of
reprints. So the meaning is not one that has been transformed into a
generic expression, but the name had already been changed to Casper.

There is also a 1930 cite, but it seems both likely spurious (no snippet
with the previewed text, but the dates of the volume are not in
question) and self-referential (Casper Milquitoast telling readers when
and where he can be found).

Despite the LC catalog entry, the volume of Webster's book that's in GB
is listed as "Caspar" not "Casper" although it's a no-preview record
( But something fishy is going on, as both Caspar
and Casper appear in this period, with "Caspar" eventually fading away.

Finally, I do have a slight antedating for the OED entry.
Outlook and Independent, Sept. 16, 1931. p. 73 [date, page number and
part of text confirmed from the snippet]

> Mr. Caspar Milquetoast, well-known Timid Soul, must have been
> considerably agitated as he read the Labor Day speeches. Said
> "Alfalfa" Bill Murray: "Unless the political structure is altered in
> the next few years, unemployment will increase

There is a 1929 cite that unambiguously refers to the comic strip, so
it's not helpful, and another 1930 cite that has no visible relevant
text, but the preview text suggests that the reference is also to the
cartoon character, not his personification. But what appears to be a
1931 critique of the Hazlitt essay from that 1930 volume does make the
character generic. [Hazlitt's name is what pops up in the preview when
clicking on the 1930 link]
> according to Mr. Henry Hazlitt, anyone who makes a plea for decorum
> must be a Caspar Milquetoast.

This likely antedates the term another couple of months, although I have
no idea what the actual date is. The Bookman for 1931 is available on
microfilm at a number of local libraries, so I might be able to track it
down. And a GB search finds several other 1931 hits, plus two earlier
ones (1929 reference is to the strip, however).

GB date tags for Printers Ink are mostly fairly accurate. So I have no
reason to doubt that the date on the supposed 1927 Printers Ink cite is
accurate. And intrinsic inspection confirms the year as well.
> smoking any other brand stamps you indelibly as either a Caspar
> Milquetoast or a moron — all of which is, of course, the most arrant
> Hooey.

Searching for straight "milquetoast" reveals no earlier GB hits,
although there are several other supposed hits from the 1920s. I did not
investigate any of them (of course, any other hits that predate the
strip itself, i.e., before 1924, are spurious--most are actually from
the 1940s, including the American Mercury). GNA shows no hits prior to
the reviews of the book, which appeared in March 1931. I checked Readex
HAN as well, but no other sources.


PS: In fact, given the dates and the facial features, I would suspect
Casper the Friendly Ghost to be a joke on Caspar Milquetoast, likely
with the foreknowledge that the name has evolved into Casper.

The American Dialect Society -

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