How The Term Milquetoast Is Linked To An Old Breakfast Food

As it is used in the contemporary vernacular, the term "milquetoast" is an insult used to describe a person with weak character. If "you are what you eat," then milquetoast is a pretty devastating burn, but a glimpse at the origin of the word makes it even worse. The soggy insult stems from a lost-to-time breakfast dish that was once pretty popular.

"Milk toast," or less flatteringly "milk sop," was a self-explanatory, bland dish consisting of buttered toast served in a dish of warm milk. It had to be eaten with a spoon because it's so soft that it slips right through the tines of a fork. Per the lore, the soggy comfort food might have regional roots in New England, but the linguistic roots of the word "sop" tie the dish back even further to the Middle Ages. Proto-milk toasts might have alternatively seen the bread cut into cubes with condensed milk poured on top and sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon.

Bland food may be okay, but bland people?

For as perhaps unappetizing as the description may sound, at one time, foodies seemed to really enjoy milk toast. Legendary American food writer M. F. K. Fisher once wrote, "And then there is plain old Milk Toast! It has been a source of reassurance and moral and physical strength for hundreds of years ... It seems to soothe the nerves and muscles and mind altogether," via the Loyola University New Orleans Department of History. The spelling eventually changed from "milk toast" to "milquetoast" thanks to H. T. Webster, an American newspaper cartoonist.

Enter Caspar Milquetoast: a timid, unassertive, easily offended 1924 character (aptly appearing in Webster's comic strip called "The Timid Soul") who goes to great lengths to avoid controversy or disagreement. The protagonist's signature is a meek shrug and an "oh well" attitude. Various panels depict Caspar Milquetoast sprinting past a "No Loitering" sign or resigning to replace a hat that blew off of his head and landed beside a "Keep Off the Grass" sign. There's probably something to be said of Webster (a native Wisconsinite) creating a character named after milk — the Wisconsin dairy tie runs deep. Either way, even as the comic strip and the breakfast food that inspired it faded into obscurity, the enduring influence of "milquetoast" as an unflattering, gastronomic-tinged insult has endured.