After a hard day of herding 5000 head of cattle and chasin’ off rustlers, your only recourse for relaxation is to hit up the town saloon for a frosty brew. You round up your crew and walk on in to Dust Mug Saloon where the barkeep, Patrick Flannigan – Sudsy to his friends and regulars – looks up from polishing his beer mug and nods. Your boys pick a spot at a table, away from the door, and start playing Three-Card Monte. You take out a smoke and sidle up to the bar next to Sudsy.
“Hey, Bill” he says putting down his mug and wiping his hands on his apron.
“Hey, Suds,” you say with a voice that’s full of dust from the trail.
“What’ll it be?”
“What ya got, Suds? It’s been a hell of a day.”
“Name your poison, Bill. We just got a shipment from Laramie – all the best.”
…Wait, what? This isn’t the old West, and you’re not an honest cowboy just tryin’ to get by? Well, shuck my corn, partner! My mistake! I musta got confused, because you know what? Today IS national Name Your Poison day.
No one quite knows where the phrase “name your poison” (or “choose your poison”) originated. Some say it’s from Socrates who was sentenced to death by drinking poison. He had an opportunity to escape, yet he chose poison. Some say it’s from Henry the VIII. But the most common consensus is that it comes from a mid-19th century slang term for alcohol. It’s a phrase that’s most often pared with dusty saloons of the old West, where the barkeep asks the patron to choose which kind of disgusting alcohol he wanted to get drunk on, because lemme tell ya, the alcohol back then was just one element shy of killing you like poison.
Today, the phrase has evolved from just meaning “choose which kind of alcohol you want to drink” to “the choice you make that will have a bad outcome no matter what.” Name your poison, friend – driving 6 hours with a stranger who wants to talk your ear off or spend $1200 on a plane ticket with the guarantee you’ll be alone.
Sometimes, people will use it in a silly way, implying it’s a bad choice but really it’s just a choice you have to make. That person is probably trying to sound smart or impress you, just so you know.
“Do you like ice cream, new friend?” he said, opening his freezer full of treats.
“Yes, I love it!”
“Well, name your poison! I probably have it!”
So now that you know what phrase means traditionally, let’s turn the phrase on its head and use today as a day to reflect on our choices and focus on the decisions we have to make. It’s become second nature to just make choices and decisions willy nilly, to quickly get through the tough ones by the seat of our pants and damn the consequences! Sometimes, stepping back from the constant barrage of questions and choices and decisions we have to make and giving ourselves an opportunity to look at the big picture – to name our poison – can give us greater insight than just plodding forward in the name of progress.
Whether you’re picking the lesser of two evils or simply trying to choose the best songs to put on a playlist to send to your boyfriend – what’ll it be, friend? Let me know. Name your poison in the comments.