A world without ‘Cheers!’ would be dismal. Any celebration devoid of the chinkle of flutes and rousing toasts would be a mean thing indeed. But why do we do it?
Throughout history, man has raised his drinking vessel (skull, horn, bowl, tankard or glass) and clunked it against his neighbour’s. No-one knows precisely why. Many toasts mimic the sound of glasses clashing against each other: “Xin-xin” (Catalan), “Tchin tchin” (French), “Cin Cin” (Italian), “Tchim-tchim” (Portuguese) or “¡Chinchín!” (Spanish).
WHAT’S YOUR POISON?
Some say that a toast protects against poisoning, but clashing drinking vessels together would be completely ineffective. The theory that – on clashing – poisoned drink would spill from one vessel into the other thereby killing the poisoner is fanciful. First, very little (if any) liquid spills from a clashing vessel, and most spills lands on the floor. Secondly, poison depends on dose: no-one can guarantee how much of the – already-diluted – poison would slosh into another’s vessel, nor how much poison would be needed to kill any particular individual. Its just too hit and miss to be efficient. Besides, when the clinking of drinking vessels evolved, people often shared drinking vessels and passed them around, which meant you were drinking the same liquid anyway. In 6 BC the practice was for the host to pour wine from a common pitcher and drink the wine first in a toast to the guests thus proving that the wine was safe. The host would raise his glass to encourage his guests to drink up.
The International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture explains that toasting is probably ‘a secular vestige of ancient sacrificial libations in which a sacred liquid was offered to the gods: blood or wine in exchange for a wish, a prayer summarized in the words “long life!” or “to your health!” Now that does sound familiar? A toast may have evolved from divine sacrifice and prayer. Clearly the Ancient Greeks offered drinks to their gods to honour them, but also drank to each other’s health: famously Ulysses drank the health of Achilles in the Odyssey. Toasting seems to have really caught on. The Roman Senate even decreed that every meal should include a toast to the health of the Emperor Augustus. Not to be outdone, Attila the Hun led three toasts for every course in ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’.
It was the Romans who first dropped burnt bread in their wine. ‘Toast’ comes from the latin ‘tostus’ meaning roasted or parched. Its charcoal would soak up some of the acidity of inferior wine masking the flavor and making the wine more palatable.
In the seventeeth century, this roman custom was popularised. In Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ Falstaff commands – “Go fetch me a quart of sack; put a toast in’t.” His grilled bread would have been spiced or fruited and floated on his wine to flavour it. The bonus was a little snack of spiced stale bread at the end. Gradually a ‘toast’ referred to honouring someone with a drink, rather than soaking grilled bread in their drink.
Eighteenth century gentlemen believed that nothing impresses a lady more than a gentleman’s ability to drink. They would toast renowned beauties – even absent ones – as ‘the toast of the town’. Young bloods demonstrated their affection through drinking games, and by cutting themselves, mixing their blood with their drinks and toasting their chosen lady. In Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ the King of Morocco laments ‘I stabbed my arm to drink her health,/the more fool I, the more fool I’. Drinking games often ended in unruly drunkenness. By the nineteenth century a failure to toast someone present was a deliberate snub: the Duke of Buccleuch called it ‘a piece of direct contempt’.
A toast to everyone in the room by everyone in the room makes everyone in the room very drunk. Cue control by the toastmaster. They tried to ensure that the toasting did not get too rowdy and imposed a toasting etiquette and standard toasts including the Loyal Toast.
Tapping the glass: Although most people get their guests attention by tapping their glass, Beware! Some people consider this to be rude.
Stand up: Toasts are made standing up to honour the person toasted. However, there are some exceptions:
– You don’t need to stand if its an intimate occasion
– Traditionally the Royal Navy does not stand for the Loyal Toast. There is insufficient headroom below decks, not to mention balance issues when a ship is pitching and yawing. Also William IV felt unwell when rising to his feet on a ship and promptly declared it unnecessary. George IV (as Regent) told Naval officers not to stand for the Loyal Toast as their loyalty was not in question. In contrast, those serving on the Royal Yacht and Swan-Uppers stand for the Loyal Toast as a distinction of their function.
– Some have a special dispensation to sit during a toast. For instance, at Lincoln’s Inn, all members sit during the Loyal Toast having been given that privilege by Charles II in 1671 when after several days of a very merry Christmas the entire company was too drunk to stand.
– Oddly The Black Watch of Canada recite the toast standing on their chairs with one leg on the table.
Host: The host should be the first to toast the guest of honour – don’t steal his thunder through over-enthusiasm.
The subject of the toast: The person being toasted should neither stand nor drink during the toast. Just stand and thank them afterwards, and perhaps propose a toast of your own.
Quantity: Seasoned guests anticipate when toasts are coming and leave sufficient wine in their glass to sip. Toasts are like buses: when one comes along ….
Snubbing: It is rude to put your glass down before the toast is complete, or to hold your glass without sipping – even if you’re teetotal allow something to be poured in your glass. An inverted glass is an act of war.
Water: If you don’t drink alcohol, it is perfectly acceptable to toast with water – although not in the US Navy where there is a superstition that you are wishing for someone to have a watery grave.
THE LOYAL TOAST
This is a toast to the Sovereign and can be quite simple: ‘The Queen’ is traditional. However, the Queen can be addressed by any of her many titles, and some of them are wonderful: ‘The Queen, the Lord of Mann’ is a personal favourite.
Sometimes even a Loyal Toast demonstrates rebellious politics. In Scotland some pass their glass over a glass of water before the Loyal Toast. This is actually a toast to the ‘king over the water’, Bonnie Prince Charlie, in support of the Jacobite rebellion. This prompted a ban on fingerbowls to remove water from the table until the Hanovarian dynasty felt sufficiently secure. The other main Jacobite toast was “to the wee gentleman in the velvet jacket” which honoured the mole whose hole had tripped William of Orange’s horse and killed the king.
There was a short-lived vogue for smashing glasses used in the Loyal Toast so that they could not be used for any lesser toast. This proved prohibitively expensive and fell out of fashion.
Sometimes the Loyal Toast gets mangled – even without intoxication. Dr Spooner toasted ‘the queer old dean’.
The best sort of toasts are short and snappy. Often they are a shorthand for a longer phrase or saying. Most call for good health. For example:
– (op je) gezondheid (Netherlands) – To your good health
– Prost (Germany), Prosit (Germany), Proost (Netherlands) – “To you/ to your health” – The latin ‘Prosit’ was shortened to the German “prost” by university students and adopted into common use. The verb ‘prodesse” means “to benefit someone or something”, “to be beneficial” In Denmark, Sweden & Norway ’prosit’ is a response to a sneeze: like “bless you”
– Na zdrowie (Poland) – To your health
– Santé (France), Sănătate (Romania) – Short for ‘a votre santé’ – To your health
– Salut (Catalona), Salute (Italian), Sláinte (Ireland), Saúde (Portugal) – Health
– Iechyd da (i chi) (Wales) – (to your) good health!
– ‘Zum Wohl!’ (Germany) – To Health
Other toast commonly refer to the drinking vessel itself: schol (Belgium), Skål (Denmark), Skál (Iceland), Skål (Norway), Skål (Sweden) these all mean Drinking bowl – and yes, skulls were drinking vessels.
But some toast simply urge people to drink up! -干杯” (gānbēi) (China) – ‘Empty cup / bottoms up’; ‘Cul sec’ (France) – Dry bottom; ‘Kanpai’ (Japan) – Dry the glass; ‘Yô’ (Vietnam) – (Take) in; and ‘Bottoms up’ (England) – Drain your glass to the bottom.