Because You Asked: Moxy Etymology

I’m unabashedly fascinated by the search terms people who’ve gotten to this site have used (there may be recent ones here). I wish I had better access to the logs so I could set up Jim Flanagan’s nifty tideghost script. But I guess I can set that up for some other site somewhere…

Anyways, some poor sap got dumped here by a search for “moxy etymology”. This sort of search, I’ve learned, is generally not the greatest way to get decent information on a word, but I view it as a Cry for Help — a Request by the Internet that a Pedant somewhere, be he never so sciolistic, hold forth.

“Moxy” is a fairly recent word, mainly American, meaning something like “spunk, hoo-ha, bravado, get up and go, sass”. Stuffy ol’ OED calls it slang and insists on spelling it “moxie”, which spelling the Dictionary of American Regional English also prefers. So does google. And Merriam Webster. Hmm…

It comes from Moxie (trademark 1924), a soft drink. It showed up in its modern meaning pretty quickly. DARE and OED have this quotation from 1930: “Personally, I always figure Louie a petty-larceny kind of guy, with no more moxie than a canary bird.”

This quote captures part of the vibe of “moxy” for me — the word’s got moxy. It wouldn’t surprise you to see it in an old gangster film, or in hard-boiled fiction. In 1955 the Publications of the American Dialect Society note “blows his moxie” as a kind of cant equivalent of “loses his nerve”.

Stuffy ol’ OED doesn’t deign to dirty its feet in the bogs of moxy’s history before the soft drink, but DARE’s got a bit more moxy, and points out the existence of a precursor to the soft drink — a patent medicine named Moxie, developed around 1880 and once advertised as a “nerve food”. Actually, maybe I’m being a bit hard on OED. They do have a nice early quotation which refers to this patent medicine and tickles at the edges of our modern “moxy”: H.C. De Mille in 1890: “Young man, you’ve got nerve enough to start a Moxie factory.”

Holy Crow! I just looked around a bit and Moxie is still around! And a trillion people have already written THIS SAME ESSAY, only with more knowledge behind it. What a drag, the internet clearly already knows all about this. “And deeper than did ever plummet sound I’ll drown my book.” Go here, everything there is much better than this.

Let’s just finish this up. Why name a patent medicine Moxie? According to DARE, it is after a Maine plant, some sort of evergreen variously called moxie, moxie berry, moxie vine, moxie plum. This makes sense, given that the founder of the Moxie company was from Maine… The moxie plant in turn DARE reckons to perhaps be called after an Algonquian base, “maski-“, meaning “medicine”.

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