Egg-Nog’s Norfolk Bloodline

Some American foods or spices are known to have an indigenous, African, or Caribbean orgin. The term barbecue, for example, seems to derive from the Taino-Arawak barbacoa.

But most early American foods and drinks derive from a British, or other European, source, not surprising considering the pattern of settlement from the 16th century through to the 1800s. Chowder, as I discussed recently, is probably of French origin, via chaudière and modern French dishes like caudière.

Terms like ale, beer, cake, cocktail, burgoo, sea pie (in French Canada, cipaille), pot pie, cobbler, and countless others hail from Britain or Ireland. Sometimes a term was twisted around a bit. I think “highball” for the drink derives from the Irish “ball of malt”, meaning a whiskey drink as discussed here earlier.

What, then, of egg-nog, an evergreen of the North American Christmas season? I am saved from the trouble to unearth its etymology and history, or most of them, due to Wikipedia’s learned exposition and references, see here.

As you see, one way or another the drink derives from the possets known earlier in parts of Great Britain. A posset is a mixture of egg, cream or milk, sugar, spices, and wine or ale. This seems clearly correct, but some have thought “egg-nog” (or eggnog), two words obviously of English origin, an Americanism albeit with conflicting explanations of origin (see Wikipedia again).



Usually if one digs deep enough, an English or other British source or cognate, at least, can be found for the name of a food or drink of evidently British origin.

I confess I had some trouble with egg-nog. I could not find a single U.K. reference to it, or a recognizably similar term, until this example appeared, from the (1894) Dictionary of Phrase and Fable by E. Cobham Brewer.



As the charming introduction states, printed in hand-lettered form, the book was first published in 1870. Brewer was a Norwich-born teacher, author, and lawyer who wrote numerous popular guides to knowledge. He enjoyed good success through a 60-year career. It appears he spent most of his career in Norwich, part of the old county of Norfolk in East Anglia. Later in life he lived in Nottinghamshire with relatives.

Brewer and the book have no evident or even implied connection to America, yet he includes egg-nog in a series of terms for a drink made with sweetened ale or wine and eggs. There is no reference to milk or cream, but some American egg-nog of the 19th century omitted any dairy. See for example here, in The Modern Bartenders Guide (1884) by O.H. Byron.

“Nog” in a beer sense is known in the old term “Norfolk nog”, which I discussed in these notes and linked moreover to early London porter development and the beer mixture “three threads”.

Being a Norfolk man, Brewer’s inclusion of the term egg-nog for a warmed, spiced ale or wine quite possibly reflected local lore, so a term alternate therefore to the more usual egg flip and egg hot. He may have drawn on other regional usage in Britain, but the fact that “nog” already has a Norfolk association to beer suggests to me egg-nog was a Norfolk regionalism that explains the American drink and its name.

Of course in America spirits only were used and remain usual in the drink: rum, brandy, or whiskey, but that reflects simply the importance of spirits in early American history.

Finally, Norfolk is not, for the purposes of this discussion, just any part of England. It is in East Anglia, a region of significant early emigration to America. This is known by anyone who has studied in-depth the early American settlement pattern. See in particular the landmark study of British social and cultural impact on America, Albion’s Seed, by David Hackett Fischer (1989).

A convenient statement of Norfolk’s influence on American culture appears in the Norfolk official visitors’ website “Visit Norfolk”:

Like so many coastal English counties, Norfolk could be relied upon to supply many of the original colonists to North America – Norfolk was the county that had the largest percentage of known passengers on The Mayflower. The county’s motto is ‘Do Different’ – and in the past so many Norfolk people wanted to do just that … An exploration of Norfolk’s towns and villages will unearth many links between the USA and ‘Nelson’s County’.

Hence the naming of Norfolk in Connecticut, etc. For confirmation of Norfolk’s influence on American English, see here, in John Bartlett’s 19th century Dictionary of Americanisms, albeit he does not elucidate egg-nog.

Glossaries of Norfolk and other regional English I have found similarly do not mention egg-nog, yet at least one attributes “nog”, see William Holloway, to Norfolk usage for an ale-based drink.

Therefore for egg-nog’s literal origin, vs. just the type of drink, arguably it came on the Mayflower, as the hallowed phrase goes. At least I think so.

Note re image: the image above was sourced from Pixabay, here. Used here for educational and research purposes. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.