We all know the drill: on very special occasions, one might prepare a lengthy toast given in honor of a special guest. We might opt for a concise “cheers” to cut out all the fluff. Or, without words, we may even pour out a drink in memory of a loved one we’ve lost. At some point in time, we’ve all dedicated the inaugural drink of the night to someone or something that deserved the honor. But where does the ritual of toasting come from?
Why is it called a toast?
The origin of this metaphor is actually surprisingly literal. During the 16th and 17th century, wine still had a ways to go before becoming the drink we know today. At the time, it didn’t taste so great. As a way to improve the flavor, it was common practice to add spiced toast to the drink.
Eventually the word toast became a shorthand, initially referring to the person (usually a woman) the toast was honoring. The person’s name “flavored” the drink, just as the toast did.
Why do we say “cheers” and what does it actually mean?
“Cheer” comes from the Anglo-French word chiere. It literally meant face, but grew to have a more nuanced meaning that referred to someone’s facial expression, and more generally, happiness or sadness depending on the context.
The English adaptation goes the optimistic route, with the word only meaning happiness or to express joy. So when you say “cheers,” you are literally just wishing cheer, often in the form of happiness and health, to present company.
Why do we clink glasses when we toast?
The origin of this particular custom has a few prevailing theories behind it:
Theory 1: For the gods and the other guys
In most cultures, there existed some form of honoring the gods before drinking. Wine was commonly offered in exchange for good health. The act of clinking them together would spill some to leave behind for the gods, or perhaps to bribe evil spirits to leave you alone. Some even say that the clink of the glass was meant to imitate church bells, which would act as another layer of protection against malicious spirits.
Theory 2: To engage all five senses
It is also theorized that clinking glasses is a way to “complete” the sensory experience of having a drink. Since drinking already engages your sight, smell, taste, and touch, adding the clink is the missing link: sound.
Theory 3: To protect against foul play
This theory suggests that clinking the glasses would make the two beverages in question spill over into one another’s cup, therefore each party would be sharing drinking some of both drinks. Why would this be desirable? Well, to ensure that your drinking buddy isn’t trying to poison you, of course. Talk about unhealthy friendships!
And what about pouring one out?
Pouring out a drink for a loved one is a practice popularized in the US by the late 80s and early 90s hip hop scene. It refers to the act of intentionally pouring out a portion of the drink in honor and remembrance of ancestors or a close loved one who has passed away.
This sort of drinking ritual was and is popular around the globe, as there are many cultures that use use this type of toast to honor the dead or a deity. The earliest documented example was in Ancient Egypt, where a bit of water (or sometimes just whatever beverage they were drinking at the time) was poured out for the dead before the drinkers continued.
Though popularized in the 90’s, the practice of pouring libations in Black American culture goes back much earlier, and extends into more formal Black American cultural celebrations such as Kwanzaa. This tradition can be traced back to the original West and Central African cultures where pouring libations is typically used specifically as a way to honor ancestors.
What is perhaps most amazing is that the practice of dedicating drinks to honor people or ideas is seen nearly ubiquitously all round the world, both in ancient cultures and the present day. So whether you want to honor the dead, the gods, or you just like to hear the glasses clink, raise a glass and say, “Cheers!”