A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from July 24, 2013
“Pick your poison” ("Choose your poison")

Liquor was jocularly called “poison” in the 19th century. Bar patrons would select their “poison.” “Nominate your poison” was cited in March 1864. “Name your poison” was cited in December 1870. “What’s your poison” was cited in July 1871.

“Choose your poison” and “pick your poison” both appear to have come later. “Choose your poison” has been cited in print since at least 1888 and “pick your poison” since at least 1913. Intoxicating liquor no longer has to be the “poison” of the subject. An 1888 “choose your poison” citation referred to Democrats and Republicans.


(Oxford English Dictionary)
poison, n.
colloq. (orig. U.S.). Alcoholic liquor; an alcoholic drink; esp. in to name one’s poison (and variants): to say what drink one would like. what’s your poison?: what drink would you like? Also in extended use.
1805 ‘Red Jacket’ in Freemason’s Mag. (Philadelphia) 2 388 We gave them corn and meat; they gave us poison in return. [note] Alluding it is supposed to ardent spirits.
1866 ‘M. Twain’ Lett. from Hawaii (1967) 85 In Washoe, when you are..invited to take ‘your regular pison’, etiquette admonishes you to touch glasses.
1876 Carson Valley News (Genoa, Nevada) 2 June 2/2 Nominate your poison, gents: it’s my treat.
1909 E. Waltham I>Life & Labour in Austral. 31 A huge rough-and-ready miner accosts us thusly ‘Well mate, what’s your poison?’
1914 J. Joyce Dubliners 113 Just as they were naming their poisons who should come in but Higgins!
1951 T. Sterling House without Door ii. 12 Name your poison, lady. Chocolate, vanilla, pistachio, maple cream.

CHronicling America
24 March 1864, Daily National Republican (Washington, DC), pg. 2, col. 1:
THE LATEST fashion ins Washington of asking a party what they will take to drink is—“Please nominate your poison, gentlemen.”

25 July 1868, Logansport (IN) Weekly Journal, pg. 2, col. 6:
Barkeepers are sensitive people. A man from Logansport invited a friend to smile with him at a down town saloon, last night. “Nominate your poison,” said he to his friend, as he stood at the bar.

14 December 1870, St. Albans (VT) Daily Messenger, “Drummers,” pg. 2, col. 3:
“Then name your poison,” said he, hauling me up to the bar.

22 July 1871, Evening Star (Washington, DC), pg. 2, col. 2 ad:
THE CAPITAL.
FOR JULY 23. CONTAINS
THE ANGEL. Continued.
ART CULTURE.
WHAT’S YOUR POISON.

Google Books
December 1871, The Health Reformer, pg. 175, col. 2:
FITTING NAMES.—“Many a true word is spoken in jest.” Standing, the other day, near the entrance of the saloon of a large hotel at the seaside, we saw several young men pass in. As they stood at the bar, one said to another, with a smile, “Nominate your poison!” He had said a terribly true thing in joke. Yes, name your poison—just the word! And they swallowed the poison and went their way. Soon another party went in. Said the leader to his companion as they leaned against the slab, “What is your family trouble?” meaning, “What will you drink?” “Family trouble!”—correctly named; for what has made such domestic misery as liquor? As we walked away, feeling we had learned two new and strikingly appropriate named for liquor: “poison,” and “family trouble.”—Watchman and Reflector.

Chronicling America
14 July 1888, Wichita (KS) Daily Eagle, pg. 4, col. 4:
Choose Your Poison, Gentlemen.
Junction City Union.
When the Democratic party went out of power whisky was 30 cents a gallon, or three to five cents a drink, and muslin prints were worth 35 cents a yard. After nearly twenty-five years of Republican rule the cheapest whisky is retaled at $1 per quart, or ten to fifteen cents a drink and muslin prints sell for five cents a yard.

1 July 1890, The Daily News (Denver, CO), “Talks in the Lobbies,” pg. 3, col. 3:
“‘What are you going to drink?’ said he, opening his valise; I have whisky and brandy both—choose your poison.’”

4 November 1904, The Daily News (Denver, CO), pg. 6, col. 2:
“CHOOSE YOUR POISON!”
The classical expression, “Choose your poison,” from the lexicon of the old-time “wild and woolly,” I rapidly becoming the proper form of invitation at all places where the beverage which cheers and inebriates is dispensed, if Dr. Wiley, chief of the government bureau of chemistry, is to be relied upon as authority.

Google Books
15 November 1913, Collier’s, “McGlew Shows Ann” by Thomas G. Connolly, pg. 17, col. 1:
“A drink—two—-three drinks—-pick your poison again, boys——it’s still on McGlew—a song, a riotous month ashore——“

24 November 1922, Trenton (NJ) Evening Times, pg. 33, col. 5: 
Pick Your Poison.
Some people go insane from overwork and others try to invent new color combinations for New York City taxicabs.—Life.

3 November 1923, San Diego (CA) Union, pg. 4, col. 2:
“Choose your poison” has ceased to be a joke.—Danville Commercial News.
(This is during Prohibition—ed.)

OCLC WorldCat record
Calypso dance
Author: Joe Loco Band.
Publisher: [Chicago] : Mercury, [1957]
Series: Wacker series
Edition/Format: Music LP : English
Contents: Pick your poison --

OCLC WprldCat record
Pick your poison; [a dictionary of food additives]
Author: June Armstrong
Publisher: Torrance, Calif., Mother Nature International, 1973]
Edition/Format: Book : English : [1st ed.]

OCLC WorldCat record
Pick Your Poison Where should a conscientious environmentalist go to fill’er up?
Author: J Hattam; P Rauber
Edition/Format: Article : English
Publication: SIERRA, 86, Part 5 (2001): 54-57
Database: British Library Serials

The Phrase Finder
Re: “Pick your poison”
Posted by Victoria S Dennis on April 28, 2006

In Reply to: “Pick your poison” posted by Isabel on April 28, 2006
: Hi, We are wondering the origin of the the phrase, “Pick your poison”. I am guessing it has something to do with Aristotle but others are guessing it is in reference to Henry VIII

The origin is simply that since the mid-19th century “poison” has been slang for alcoholic drink (in Australia a pub was known as a “poison-shop"). This may refer to the Latin root “toxicum” (meaning “poison")of the word “intoxicate”, or it may just be a reference ro the bad effects of excessive drinking. Thus the phrases “what’s your poison?” “Pick your poison” and “choose your poison” arose naturally. There is no reference to any historic incident, and no connection with Aristotle or Henry VIII, neither of whom was either poisoned, or poisoned anybody!

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • Wednesday, July 24, 2013 • Permalink