"Tom Collins" Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

Welcome to the Endless Knot Cocktail Bar! For April Fool’s Day we’re mixing up a Tom Collins, so let me explain why…

The drink we now know of as the Tom Collins — gin, lemon juice, sugar, and soda water — was probably originally invented by and named after one John Collins, bartender at the Limmer’s Hotel in West London in the early decades of the 19th century. A rhyme written by Charles and Frank Sheridan, grandsons of the more famous playwright Richard Sheridan, identifies the bartender as the inventor of a popular gin punch, which sounds very much like the Tom Collins of today. So why the change of name? Well it might be that the drink came to be made with a particular type of sweet gin popular at the time, called Old Tom, so called either because of the black cat — think tom cat — signs that marked out illicit sellers of the beverage, or because it was named after Thomas Chamberlain of the Hodges distillery who supposedly invented it in the late 18th century. Either way, by the time the drink made its first appearance in the 1876 cocktail recipe book by American celebrity bartender Jerry Thomas, the name change had occurred. Or an odd hoax which was, somewhat inexplicably, all the rage in 1874 in America might be responsible for this change from John to Tom. More of a practical joke than a hoax, really, the prankster tells the target that this guy “Tom Collins” (and no one knows why that name was always used!) has been badmouthing him, and that he’s just around the corner. All worked up, the butt of the joke storms off around the corner to find that jerk Collins, and when there’s no such person, well, hilarity apparently ensues. Guess you had to be there.

And that’s why the Tom Collins is the drink for a day devoted to hoaxes, pranks and practical jokes, and this brings us to that larger topic. We’re all familiar with crop circles, for instance, and celebrity death hoaxes on the internet. Probably the most famous celebrity death hoax pre-dates the internet, however — the notorious Paul is Dead rumour of the 1960s — but the phenomenon goes back even farther, with perhaps the earliest example being when satirist Jonathan Swift, under the the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff, took a pot-shot at astrology by predicting that then-famed astrologer John Partridge would die on April 1st 1708; though the man wasn’t actually dead, he was widely believed to be, and the hoax ended up irreparably damaging the astrologer’s reputation. So it seems when it comes to hoaxes and pranks, we’re never gonna give them up, and they’re never gonna let us down!

Speaking of jokes, hoaxes, and pranks, the word joke comes from Latin iocus with a similar meaning, going back to a Proto-Indo-European root *yek- meaning “to speak”. As for hoax, it either comes from the same Latin root, or it’s a contraction of hocus, as in hocus pocus, the fake Latin phrase a magician might use, derived perhaps from hoc est corpus from the text of the Mass. The etymology ofprank is uncertain, but one suggestion is that it comes from a Dutch root meaning “to adorn, flaunt, make a show”, going back to Proto-Germanic meaning “press, squeeze”. Practical jokes & hoaxes have been around forever, of course, but the specific forms they take & the fascination they hold for onlookers often reflect their particular historical moments or social conditions.

A standard modern prank is the prank pizza call, sending a big order of pizza to either a nonexistent address or to a “friend” you’re trying to prank, who is then on the hook for paying for all that unwanted pizza. But that’s just plain amateurish compared to the 19th century version, the most famous of which is the Berners Street Hoax. In 1810, prankster Theodore Hook bet his buddy Samuel Beazley that he could make any address in London the most talked about house in town in a week. He won the bet by sending dozens upon dozens of tradesmen to one house on Berners Street on the same day: chimney sweeps, coal deliveries, cake makers, doctors, lawyers, shoemakers, fishmongers, furniture deliveries, and more—including a dozen pianos, which certainly beats a dozen pizzas!  Even the Governor of the Bank of England, the chairman of the East India Company, the Duke of Gloucester, and the Mayor of London were called to the house! Poor Mrs Tottenham of 54 Berners Street! Traffic was snarled and the street was filled with gawkers; and the prank highlighted the changing nature of London itself in the 19th century, as people flooded in from the country and adapted to the chaos of city living. As for Theodore Hook himself, he had a reputation as a notorious prankster, and has the dubious honour of having sent (to himself) the first postcard in postal history, with a caricature of postal workers on the front as joke on the mail service. Funny guy, eh?

Another notoriously eccentric prankster was Horace de Vere Cole. In a hoax that made the papers, perhaps in part because it so pointedly mocked the pomposity and ignorant imperialism of military officials, he and several friends, including a young Virginia Woolf dressed in drag, posed as dignitaries from Abyssinia and got themselves an official reception on board the flagship HMS Dreadnought. When it came time for refreshments, however, they had to make a quick escape, as they’d been warned by the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt’s make-up artist, who assisted with the gag, that their face paint would come off.

Sometimes celebrity can help sell a hoax, even if the celebrity in question isn’t involved. In 1835 the New York Sun, capitalizing on that age of fantastic scientific discovery and innovation, published a series of articles that claimed famed and respected astronomer John Herschel had, by means of “an immense telescope of an entirely new principle” discovered life and even an advanced civilization on the Moon. The story was a complete fabrication which Herschel was unaware of until months later. Initially amused by the hoax, Herschel later became annoyed at having to answer repeated questions about it. One who was annoyed immediately was writer Edgar Allan Poe, who accused the paper of plagiarizing his own moon hoax a few months earlier, pointing out that the likely perpetrator of the hoax was Richard Adams Locke, writer for the Sun, who had previously been Poe’s editor. Poe had the last laugh though by, some years later, publishing his own successful hoax in the New York Sun about a cross-Atlantic balloon voyage, thus I suppose recouping some of his lost royalties.

Over the years there have been many literary hoaxes as well. Teenage 18th century poet Thomas Chatterton produced rather convincingly medieval-sounding poetry under the name Thomas Rowley, and ended up being a major influence on the English Romantic movement. Even more influential on the Romantic movement was the epic poetry of the Scottish Bard Ossian from the 3rd century. Except it wasn’t from the 3rd century, but was largely forged by 18th century schoolmaster James Macpherson. Most were taken in by the forgery, but not the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who set about disproving the Ossian poems as fakes.

Indeed writers can be both debunkers and dupes in historical hoaxes. One such example is the story of the ghost of Cock Lane, a street so named because it was the site of legal brothels during the middle ages. In 1762, William Kent and Fanny Lynes became lodgers in the London home of Richard Parsons; he was a rather overbearing landlord and forced a loan out of Kent, which he then refused to pay back. While staying at the house Fanny heard an otherworldly scratching noise; the couple left the apparently haunted house, and soon after Fanny died of smallpox. When Kent brought successful legal action against Parsons to recover the debt, Parsons claimed that the scratching noise had returned and was now Fanny’s ghost accusing Kent of her murder, and the story of “Scratching Fanny” spread through London like wildfire, with gawkers, seances and even concession stands generating a tidy profit for Parsons. It attracted the attention of the rather credulous gothic novel writer Horace Walpole, as well as the rather skeptical Samuel Johnson, who once again debunked the hoax, and Parsons and some others were tried and convicted for it. Dr Johnson: 18th century ghostbuster!

Another overly credulous author was, surprisingly, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, the epitome of rationalism. Doyle was actually an avowed spiritualist and believer in the supernatural, much to the consternation of his sometime friend Harry Houdini, who in spite of or perhaps because of his profession took up the debunking cause, even at the cost of his friendship with the famous writer. Houdini even hired horror writer H.P. Lovecraft to ghostwrite, if I can use that phrase with a straight face in this context, a book debunking the supernatural. And as for Doyle, one of the hoaxes he was caught up in and promoted with some vigour was the famous case of the photographs of the Cottingly Fairies. Turns out they were simply cardboard cutouts made and photographed by the two young girls Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths between 1917 and 1920.

But it’s possible Doyle got his revenge on the doubters and haters. For years scientists searched for an example of the “missing link” between ape and human, and they thought they had discovered it in the Piltdown Man skull, supposedly “found” by fossil collector Charles Dawson in 1912. Turns out it was the upper part of a human skull joined with the jawbone of an orangutan, a cleverly constructed forgery that wasn’t disproved until 1953. It’s unknown who the perpetrator was, but the list of suspects includes Dawson himself, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Horace de Vere Cole, that inveterate prankster behind the Dreadnought hoax. Either way it seems to have been intended as a joke on the scientific establishment that got out of hand.

Sometimes the establishment can be behind the hoax as in the case of the April Fool’s Day joke pulled by the BBC news show Panorama that convinced many viewers in 1957 that spaghetti grew on trees and that nothing beat freshly harvested pasta. Many later wrote in asking how they could go about starting their own spaghetti trees. Well, it was the 1950s and spaghetti was still a somewhat exotic cuisine in England!

But for many people, April Fool’s is about practical jokes — like that old standard, the joy buzzer, a concealed device which vibrated, surprising the receiver of a handshake, invented by the king of novelty devices Soren Sorensen Adams. “Sam” Adams, as he was called, who by the way turned down the whoopee cushion as too crude, also invented the dribble glass—maybe an appropriate glass for aTom Collins? Except that he sort of didn’t — invent it that is. The concept actually goes back, apparently, to the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras. The Pythagorean cup, though, works on a slightly different principle. It operates as a normal cup as long as it isn’t overfilled, but if one is greedy and takes too much to drink, it creates a siphon sucking the entire contents out of the cup and pouring it out a hole in the bottom. Everything in moderation, I suppose. As for less philosophically-minded jokes, as far back as the late 18th century, people would send invitations to witness the nonexistent ceremony of the Washing of the Lions in the moat of the Tower of London on April 1st, a prank that persisted into the 19th century. But how far back does April Fool’s Day itself go?

There are many theories about the origins of April Fool’s Day, none of them entirely convincing, so perhaps the joke’s on us. The most widely held theory is that it relates to a calendar reform in France in 1564, the Edict of Roussillon, which moved the official start of the New Year from April 1st to January 1st. Anyone still celebrating on the old day would be mocked by having a paper fish stuck to their back and being called Poisson d’avril, which is still the French term for April Fools. Good joke, eh? Actually the fish connection might not be as surreal as it initially seems. The explanation is that in spring the newly-hatched fish were so plentiful and young that they were easy to trick with a lure, so they were thought of as foolish. And it’s been suggested that the spring equinox was already considered a time of revelry & mischief-making, much like the winter solstice.

Another theory is that April Fool’s Day goes back at least as far as Chaucer in the 14th century. There is a possible association of foolishness and trickery with the date April 1st in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in which he tells an animal fable about the cock Chauntecleer, who is proud and vain, being tricked into singing for the fox, who then snatches him up. The fox is then in turn tricked into calling out by Chauntecleer, who makes good his escape. Chaucer seems to date the story to April 1st, so while it’s not a clear reference to April Fool’s Day as a custom, it may be a possible reflection of the time of year’s connection to foolishness.

There’s an even earlier possible association in the legend of the Wise Men of Gotham, who purportedly tricked King John out of building a public road through their village by all acting mad, doing such things as trying to drown an eel and trap a cuckoo in a roofless fence. Supposedly then April Fool’s Day commemorates this event. And there’s a reference to the “fools of Gotham” in the medieval Townley Mystery Plays, so there seems to be some genuinely old association there. Many years later, by the way, writer Washington Irving bequeathed the nickname Gotham to New York City, which was later still picked up on as the fictional city in the Batman comic books. I wonder what the Joker would think of that connection.

But the most reliable evidence seems to point to a Dutch or German origin (appropriate given the probable origin of the word “prank”). The earliest clear reference to April Fools pranking goes back to a 1561 poem by Flemish writer Eduard de Dene, in which a nobleman sends his servant around on a series of fool’s errands as a joke on April 1st. Also in an early English reference to the tradition, 17th c. author John Aubrey writes “Fooles holy day. We observe it on the first of April. And so it is kept in Germany everywhere.”

What is clearer is the etymology of the words April Fool themselves. April comes to English through Latin ultimately from the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite, appropriate since the month is sacred to the equivalent Roman goddess Venus. Fool comes through French from Latin follis meaning bellows — think windbag or airhead. It goes back to a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to blow, inflate, swell” also giving us words such as ball, balloon, bollocks, and phallus.

So, if we think back now to our starting point of the Tom Collins, we might be reminded of the expression tomfool or tomfoolery, Tom being an everyman name, as in Tom, Dick and Harry, which may lead us to the final moral of this hairy dog story (a fool’s errand you might say), that on April Fool’s Day, instead of playing a prank on a friend, make them a Tom Collins instead, and don’t be a dick.

And in that ‘spirit’, here’s how to make a Tom Collins:

Add 2 oz Old Tom gin,3/4 oz lemon juice, and3/4 oz simple syrup to a cocktail shaker. Shake with ice until cold. Put ice and 5 oz of seltzer or soda water in a Collins glass, strain the gin and lemon mixture into it, and garnish with a citrus wedge or cherry.

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