F. Scott Fitzgerald Conjugates “to Cocktail,” the Ultimate Jazz-Age Verb (1928)

fitzgerald conguates cocktail

I reg­u­lar­ly meet up with speak­ing part­ners who help me learn their lan­guages in exchange for my help­ing them learn Eng­lish. Even though they usu­al­ly speak much bet­ter Eng­lish already than I speak Kore­an, Span­ish, Japan­ese, or what have you, I often feel like I’ve got the heav­ier end of the job. Why? Because the Eng­lish lan­guage, for all its advan­tages — its glob­al reach, the ease with which it incor­po­rates for­eign terms and neol­o­gisms, its wealth of descrip­tive pos­si­bil­i­ty — has the major dis­ad­van­tage of sel­dom mak­ing imme­di­ate sense.

From Eng­lish’s great flex­i­bil­i­ty flows great frus­tra­tion: how many times have for­eign friends put up a piece of text to me — often from respect­ed, canon­i­cal works of Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture — and demand­ed an expla­na­tion? They’ve usu­al­ly stum­bled over some obscure usage that qual­i­fies as at least unortho­dox and per­haps down­right ungram­mat­i­cal, but nonethe­less intu­itive­ly under­stand­able — if only to a native speak­er like me. Here we have one exam­ple of just such a lin­guis­tic inven­tion refined by no less a respect­ed, canon­i­cal writer than F. Scott Fitzger­ald: the verb “to cock­tail.”

“As ‘cock­tail,’ so I gath­er, has become a verb, it ought to be con­ju­gat­ed at least once,” wrote the author of The Great Gats­by in a 1928 let­ter to Blanche Knopf, the wife of pub­lish­er Alfred A. Knopf. Who bet­ter to first lay out its full con­ju­ga­tion than the man who, as the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin’s Har­ry Ran­som Cen­ter puts it, “gave the Jazz Age its name”? Giv­en that his fame “was for many years based less on his work than his personality—the soci­ety play­boy, the speakeasy alco­holic whose career had end­ed in ‘crack-up,’ the bril­liant young writer whose ear­ly lit­er­ary suc­cess seemed to make his life some­thing of a roman­tic idyll,” he found him­self well placed to offer the lan­guage a new “taste of Roar­ing Twen­ties excess.”

And so Fitzger­ald breaks it down:

Present: I cock­tail, thou cock­tail, we cock­tail, you cock­tail, they cock­tail.

Imper­fect: I was cock­tail­ing.

Per­fect or past def­i­nite: I cock­tailed.

Past per­fect: I have cock­tailed.

Con­di­tion­al: I might have cock­tailed.

Plu­per­fect: I had cock­tailed.

Sub­junc­tive: I would have cock­tailed.

Vol­un­tary sub­junc­tive: I should have cock­tailed.

Preter­it: I did cock­tail.

If you, too, decide to teach this advanced verb to your Eng­lish-learn­ing friends, why not sup­ple­ment the les­son with the audio clip just above, a read­ing of the let­ter from the Ran­som Cen­ter? Lan­guage-learn­ing, no mat­ter the lan­guage, inevitably gets to be a grind from time to time, but vary­ing the types of instruc­tion­al media can help alle­vi­ate the inevitable headaches. And when the day’s stud­ies end, of course, an actu­al cock­tail­ing ses­sion could­n’t hurt. After all, they always say you speak a for­eign lan­guage bet­ter after a drink or two.

via the great Lists of Note book

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Drink­ing with William Faulkn­er: The Writer Had a Taste for The Mint Julep & Hot Tod­dy

Film­mak­er Luis Buñuel Shows How to Make the Per­fect Dry Mar­ti­ni

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 13 Pre­pos­ter­ous Ideas for Your Left­over Turkey

Col­in Mar­shall writes on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (7)
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  • Dixie Lee says:

    Why no future tense? I will cock­tail! By all accounts FSF was an indif­fer­ent schol­ar, but he seems to have learned his Latin gram­mar!

  • Wendy Gee says:

    Why no 3rd per­son sin­gu­lar? he/she/it cock­tails

  • Lea says:

    Dan, I don’t know who orig­i­nal­ly men­tioned it, but it was for­ward­ed to me by a friend (Claire Pen­te­cost).

  • Jacko says:


    No, we don’t, any­more than I know who gave me that hor­ri­ble cold last week (‘viral’ media for ya). In all like­li­hood, it was a vast con­glom­er­ate of enter­tained indi­vid­u­als.

    Any­way, I’m glad to have read it — delight­ful arti­cle. Cheers.

  • Anthony Tuffin says:

    I was taught that, in Eng­land, “I shall cock­tail” was the future tense and “I will cock­tail” was an emphat­ic expres­sion of intent.

    Thus, “I shall drown” is a cry for help from some­one, who has fall­en into water and does­n’t want to drown, but “I will drown” is a state­ment of inten­tion from a sui­cide, who has jumped into the water.

    Con­fus­ing­ly, I under­stand it’s the oth­er way round in Scot­tish Eng­lish.

  • Anthony Tuffin says:

    I don’t see how “it” can cock­tail, so only “He or she cock­tails”.

  • Erik says:

    poor Scott Fitzger­ald

    It was so dif­fi­cult to decline (a) cock­tail (invi­ta­tion)

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