Jerome Shea       November 25, 2011      Weekend Wonk

(I hope you will indulge me once again, my friends. This essay was written over twenty years ago, but I hope it has stood the test of time. Also, it is long enough that I have chosen to break it in two. Here’s the first part.)

One morning a few months ago I caught myself saying, to no one in particular and about whom I can’t recall, “You know, that took a lot of moxie.” The expression surprised and delighted me. Moreover, it set me on a digging that tunneled its way to the roots of nostalgia.

Even in the Southwest a decent number of people can still be found who recognize the term “moxie,” I think, but who would never be prompted to use it themselves. It would never pop out of them as it did out of me, who was nurtured early in New England. And so far only one friend I approached, a man who vacationed long ago in New Hampshire, realized where the term came from. Indeed, having stomached but half a bottle, he still cannot forget. The very serviceable term comes from the very startling drink, and more about the drink shortly. For now, it seems important to clarify a useful term and to note that it was very well born: out of the gullet and into the lexicon, as it were.

The best brief definition of “moxie” is “courage” or “guts.” Here Webster’s Third agrees and graciously admits the derivation, while the American Heritage recognizes both the beverage and the term (“spirit; pluck”) and then rather obtusely declares the term’s origin “uncertain,” as if the editorial synapses had quit. For the record, “moxie” is descended from a by-blow of romance and business acumen: it is the eponym of a “Lieut. Moxie [who] accidentally discovered…a simple sugarcane-like plant grown near the Equator and farther south….” So reads the label on Moxie’s 19th-century progenitor, a concoction by Dr. Augustin Thompson, who undoubtedly concocted the worthy lieutenant also, to further his own enterprise. (Dr. Thompson, incidentally, was the McCoy, a graduate—shortly after the Civil War—of Hanneman Hospital in Philadelphia.) The distinctive ingredient in Moxie, however, was not some exotic of the rain forest or savannah, but the humble gentian root. How Dr. Thompson came up with “Moxie” as a surname is lost to us. Given Moxie’s flavor, it is tempting to imagine some connection between “macho” and “moxie.” But let that discovery garland some later researcher.

A recent good book (Frank N. Potter, The Moxie Mystique, Norfolk, Va., 1981) seems to approve “moxie” as meaning, among other things, “chutzpah.” Not so. The guy who pushes his way into the movie queue has chutzpah, has gall. But moxie is only honorific. Whoever stares down the menacing mob has moxie; whoever stands up to the powers-that-be has moxie. One is tempted to say that the soldier who throws himself on the grenade has moxie, but the term may not extend quite that far in glory. Nevertheless, to have moxie is to be good, and tough, and righteous.

The term is beautifully, aptly, derived. Save for the elect, Moxie was a drink destined to make one wish he hadn’t drunk it. It was almost exclusively a New England soft drink, sprung from that 19th century patent remedy already noted, and originally called Moxie Beverage Nerve Food (imagine, if you will, a hillside of wholesome youngsters singing, “I’d like to give the world a Moxie Beverage Nerve Food”). Eventually it became simply Moxie. For a time it outsold Coca Cola, and for a long time in New England it sold very well indeed.

That says a lot about New Englanders. In fact, Moxie says as much about New England as do hard winters and big rocks in the pasture. I remember Moxie from the late ‘40’s, when I was five or six and just beginning to swagger in my father’s shadow. The experience of one’s first Moxie was incomparable.

When Moxie was first in your mouth, you didn’t know what you had taken in. But by then it was past worrying. Of course you could spit it out but, a good New Englander, you swallowed. Then the first charge hit. Dry—I remember that so clearly—not the silly dryness of a citrus drink, but that dangerous metallic aridity that bodes regurgitation. In fact, just when you hoped to upchuck but didn’t, the full, awful authority announced itself. Woody, it was: dry and woody and barky-biting, as if you had chewed in a frenzy on some effervescent elm. The experience was both sensory and moral, embodying every grandmother’s loving nostrum and every grandfather’s stern counsel. And then it was done. You had had your first swig of Moxie. Pale, you grinned at your father; ruddy, he grinned at you. It was a kind of Yankee bar mitzvah.

Moxie could have come only from New England: it personified and echoed that tight, righteous place. One can imagine some Puritan divine, down from the pulpit after a long spell of godly ranting, licking his thin, dry lips and upending a twelve-ounce Moxie. Nothing else could douse the fire in his belly or, perhaps, fuel it anew. Moxie was as much a New England artifact as Jenny gasoline, its name as heartening to the New Englander’s ear as “Hi, neighbor, have a ‘Gansett!” (Narragansett beer can still be had, but now it is put out by Amalgamated Homogenized Nationwide Brewer and Holding Company, or some such faceless travesty).

Stay tuned.

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