A Toast to Cheers! (or: why do we toast, anyway?)


If you’ve ever taken our Historic Brewery Tour, you know that before every drink, we toast, “To Queen and country!” Since my brewery compatriots and I end up saying this toast almost every day, I eventually got to thinking: what’s the origin behind toasts, anyway?

The Oxford English Dictionary is usually a good place to start investigations. According to the OED, a “toast” is a…call to a gathering of people to raise their glasses and drink together in honour of a person or thing, or an instance of drinking in this way, while “cheers” is defined as expressing good wishes.

Lovely, but less etymology than I usually like. Continuing my digging, I found a myriad of explanations for the origins of toasting. One such theory, claims that the Ancient Greeks believed beautiful, spiritual things should appeal to all five senses. Thus, the colour of wine pleases the eye; the bouquet pleases the nose; and the body, both taste and touch. Clinking goblets together is therefore a way to include the ear. Indeed, if we look at the word aesthetics (in the sense of it being a philosophy dealing with the appreciation of art and beauty), we find it is ultimately derived from the Greek word aisthanomai: “I perceive, feel, sense.” But, while there is a possibility this is true, and while I personally really like the concept, I remain unconvinced—a few more primary sources would be nice.

It certainly has an aesthetic of its own, though...
It certainly has an aesthetic of its own, though…

Other theories include: banging mugs together to slosh part of your drink into your partner’s mug, and vice versa. Thus, if you had poisoned your partner’s drink, you’d end up contaminating your drink, too. Alternatively, toasting might have originated through the desire to frighten away spirits by banging mugs. Or, from offering the first drink to the gods: a remnant of sacrificial libation-pouring.

So the origins of toasting are likely multifaceted, and certainly nebulous. Luckily, the Victorians were a little clearer on their stance towards toasts. Surprisingly, they were not overly fond of them:

“The custom of drinking toasts, and of forcing people to drink bumper and bumper of wine, until drunkenness results, is quite banished from gentlemanly society to its proper place—the tavern. It arises from a mistaken idea of making visitors welcome… (Charles William Day, Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits: 1844, p. 47)

Nor was this an isolated opinion:

“And you must drink whether it pleased you to do so or not; and the glasses were often refilled while you drank to the health of this person or that, while to refuse to do so was considered an insult. Such feasts are within the memory of many men now living, but let hope that our children may never return to them.” (Sophia Orne Johnson, A Manual of Etiquette with Hints on Politeness and Good Breeding: 1868, p. 58)

Of course, toasting meets temperance with a fabulous collision. They’re absolutely right: it is still considered impolite to refuse a toast (actually, the semantics of toasting etiquette caused quite a scandal between Canada and Ireland in the 1940s). It is easy to see why pro-temperance writers would worry about toasting leading people to drink an excessive amount (advice-manual writers and pro-temperance writers seem to overlap quite a bit). As well, temperance claimed that alcohol threatened health, society, and morality. Their aversion to it being used to celebrate to express well wishes therefore makes sense.

As one “gentleman” said,

Gentleman,—You have been pleased to drink my health with wine… Your drinking me will do me no harm; drinking it will do you no good. I do not take wine, because I am determined wine shall not take me. You are most daring, but I am most secure. You have courage to tamper with and flatter a dangerous enemy; I have courage to let him alone…I would rather drink your diseases; would rather root out from you whatever is wrong and prejudicial to your happiness… (A Manual of Etiquette with Hints on Politeness and Good Breeding, p. 69).

Sounds like this gentleman was great fun at parties. Sounds like he was also invented to make a point.

In any case, in temperance schools of thought, this anti-toasting attitude continued into the twentieth century. The Sacred Heart Review, a Catholic newspaper published in Cambridge/Boston, said:

“Toasting is a foolish old custom which ought to have died a natural death, years ago. Among temperance people, or at a celebration run on total abstinence lines, it is an anomaly. If there must be toasts, however, there are lots of temperance beverages, beginning with water (the best of all) in which to drink them.” (The Sacred Heart Review, February 16, 1901).

I find it interesting that so much emphasis is put on the vehicle of expressing those good wishes, rather than on the good wishes themselves. As we’ve seen, temperance becomes far more intolerant as the century progressed; this staunch stand makes sense in context, I suppose I’m just always surprised by how fervent temperance rhetoric can be.

 

(courtesy www.warof1812.ca)
Cheers! (courtesy http://www.warof1812.ca)

In any case, we are quite pleased to toast you, the Queen, Black Creek, and various and sundry people down here. And we’re pleased to do so across languages, too! How do you toast?

Afrikaans: Gesondheid!

Breton: Yec’hed mat!

Chinese (Cantonese):  飲勝 (yám sing) 飲杯 (yám bùi)

Chinese (Mandarin): 乾杯! [干杯!] (gān bēi)

Czech: Na zdraví!

Danish: Skål!

Dutch: Proost!

English: Cheers!

Fijian: Bula!

French: À votre santé!

German: Prost!

Greenlandic : Kasuutta!

Igbo : Mma manu!

Irish Gaelic : Sláinte!

Italian: Salute!

Klingon: Iwllj jachjaj!

Korean: 건배 [乾杯] (geonbae)

Latin: Bonam sanitatem!

Māori: Mauri ora!

Old English: Wes þū hal!

Polish: Na zdrowie!

Portuguese: Viva!

Russian : За здоровье! (Za zdarov’e!)

Scottish Gaelic: Slàinte!

Sindarin : Almiën!

Spanish : ¡Salud!

Swahili : Miasha mareful!

Vietnamese : Chúc sức khoẻ!

Welsh: Iechyd da!

Xhosa: Impilo!

(Please note: this is just a small smattering of languages!)

To Queen and country!

Katie

For more information…

Day, Charles William. Hints on Etiquette and the Usages of Society, with a Glance at Bad Habits. Bostin: Otis, Broaders, & Co., 1844.

Johnson, Sophia Orne. A Manual of Etiquette with Hints on Politeness and Good Breeding. Philadelphia: D. McKay, 1868.

n.d.  “As to Toasts and Other Things.” The Sacred Heart Review (Boston), February 16, 1901.

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