Today is World Health Day; celebrated every year on this day since 1950. And in thinking about all the words related to health, my mind went off in a slightly different direction; namely, to drinking. No, this isn’t a diatribe against the consumption of alcohol and its ill effects on our health. In fact, just the opposite. It’s where alcohol and health conjoin – in the time-honored tradition of toasting. Toasting, after all, is the wishing of good health to another, and what better way to celebrate World Health Day than to wish the world good health?
The idea behind toasting predates even ancient history and probably goes back to the early cave man who, while sitting around the fire after a successful day of mammoth hunting, toasted his compatriots with a cup of home brew. I’m sure there’s a cave drawing somewhere, as yet undiscovered, that will back up my claim.
We know that the ancient Greeks gave toasts, often when coming together with enemies or rivals to work on a little détente. They even had a word for the host or toastmaster presiding over the ceremonies – symposiarch. Since the ancient Greeks also had an affinity for using poisons, a toast was traditionally begun by the host taking the first drink, thus assuring his or her guests that the beverage was perfectly safe. Of course, if those same guests got carried away later in the evening and passed out from too much toasting, well, they might find their host taking advantage of the situation.
The term toast has several possible histories, but the one that seems the most reliable comes from Roman times. The term is actually related to that other definition of the word – burnt bread. It seems that the Romans would char a piece of bread and then drop a small tidbit into a glass of wine. The belief was that the charcoal on the bread would act to reduce the acidity in what was very often vinegary wine. This tradition was so popular, it was still being used in Shakespeare’s day. The word toast is also Roman in origin and comes from tostus, meaning roasted.
If the word toast is too casual for you, there’s a few more formal versions: propination – specifically, the act of pledging by taking a drink and then offering the cup to another; not to be confused by heavy alcoholic consumption by college fraternity pledges at keg parties. A rouse is a toast in honor of one’s health.
Today, toasting is a tradition found in almost every culture and many languages have their own accompanying word that generally means good luck or good health. A few no-no’s when toasting. Never toast with an empty glass; it’s bad luck. Always take a sip from your glass after toasting. It’s bad form to toast and then place your drink back down without imbibing. In fact, in some cultures, it bad form not polish off the drink in one swig, but see the reference above from the Greeks to be warned of possible ill effects. Often toasting involves the clinking of glasses. This is fine, just don’t break your host’s good crystal, and it’s okay if some of your drink slops over into another’s. This was traditionally taken as a sign of brotherhood and very much in keeping with the overall spirit of the toast. If you are asked to say a few words prior to the toast, keep it short. People want to drink, not listen to you.
Here’s a few words besides cheers or bottoms up that you can use when toasting:
carouse – an archaic form of the word that helps us understand its modern usage.
chin chin – originally from China but used in the U.K. as an expression of goodbye.
doch-an-dorrach – this is an Irish term literally meaning drink of the door; it was used as a parting toast to one who was mounted on a horse and ready to depart.
hwyl – a Welsh term meaning all the best.
proost – from the Netherlands meaning to your health.
prost or prosit – pretty much the same as the Dutch word only for Germans.
salud – used in Spanish-speaking countries and meaning health.
santé – used in French-speaking countries and meaning to health.
skål – general term meaning to honor and used throughout the Scandinavian countries.
wassail – what we think of as a Christmastime drink was originally a verb wishing another good health and often accompanied by spirituous singing.