I used the word ‘gimlet’ when I was writing yesterday – a character uses it actually and he gets to wonder what the origin is and if a gimlet is a little gim. I’m not sure I exactly knew what it was or its origin, thinking it might be something sharp and pointed, possibly like a needle, and maybe it referred to the hole in the needle… but then I thought maybe I was thinking the eye of a needle and a gimlet eye and blurring the two.
Apparently a gimlet is a tool, a boring tool, with a shaft and a cross handle at one end and a pointed screw at the other, a little like a corkscrew as I understand it. A gimlet eye, therefore, is a piercing look, someone who is sharp-eyed or observant to the nth degree; this use of the word was first noted in the mid 1750’s. The actual word comes from Old French which transferred into Anglo-French, the original word being something like guimbelet or guibelet; this Old French came in turn from Old Dutch wimmelkijn which meant a little wimmel which was the word for an auger or drill; an auger doesn’t just make a hole by being sharp and pointed, it has a screwing action to drill into something. Coincidentally, proabably from a similar origin, Middle English had a wimble.
Gimlet was used as a verb, meaning to piece something, but it could also be used in a nautical sense, to swivel an anchor round to get it in the right position – an extra ‘b’ was added in this sense and it became to gimblet – which is very like the French guimbelet. Another naval connection is the cocktail called the gimlet, made from gin or vodka and lime juice sweetened or not, and an optional splash of soda.
There is story that the cocktail was invented by a British naval officer, Surgeon Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Desmond Gimlette. Gimlette was born in 1857 and was certainly in the navy when cocktails became popular. Naval officers drank gin (I know this because my father-in-law was a naval officer; he drank gin, the ranks drank rum) Gimlette, apparently, thought it healthier to dilute gin with lime juice and soda water; there is actually no evidence at all that he did this, but on the other hand there is no evidence that he didn’t! Other sources mention that the cocktail was invented in 1928 and was so named because of its piercing quality and penetrating effect.
When I was in my late teens and first started going to pubs and clubs, a favourite drink was vodka and lime – which I and lots of my friends used to drink. I was very fussy which vodka I had, although I can’t now remember which was my favourite, and I would only have Rose’s Lime Cordial. Little did I know that I was drinking a gimlet!