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A drinking bout in several parts (Part 5: Toast)


By Anatoly Liberman

Toasting, a noble art, deserves the attention of all those (etymologists included) who drink for joy, rather than for getting drunk.  The origin of the verb to toast “parch,” which has been with us since the end of the 14th century, poses no problems.  Old French had toster “roast, grill,” and Italian tostare seems to be an unaltered continuation of the Romance protoform.  Tost- is the root of the past participle of Latin torrere (the second conjugation) “parch.”  English has the same root in torrid and less obviously in torrent, from torrens “scorching, said of streams; roaring, rushing”).  A cognate of the root tor- can be seen in Engl. thirst, a most appropriate word in the present context.   Kemp Malone (1889-1971), an eminent American scholar, equally proficient in modern linguistics and medieval literature, once reclassified the senses of the verb toast “parch,” as given in the Oxford English Dictionary, and came to the following conclusion:

“…throughout, the verb means the same thing: ‘to heat thoroughly’.  This has always been the basic meaning of the word, but in modern times the process of toasting has come to be restricted to a beneficial application of heat.  The source of this heat in early times was either the sun or an open fire, but later uses of the word indicate that toasting may be effected by any source of heat found suitable for the purpose, as an electric current or blasts of hot air.”

This is probably true, but it tells us nothing about toasting occurring at banquets, and yet, from an etymological point of view, it must be the same word.

As usual, popular books and the Internet give lots of anecdotal information about the origin of toast “drinking a guest’s health,” without disclosing their sources, but etymologies unsupported by exact references should never be trusted, for authors tend to copy from one another and thus produce an illusion of consensus and solid knowledge, where a critic easily discerns a Ponzi scheme in historical linguistics.  One thing seems to be certain, however: from early on, people put a piece of charred bread at the bottom of a wine glass. Whether this ingredient added flavor, removed flavor, or disguised the presence of poison in the container is less clear.  I will quote part of a statement by a professor of chemistry, as given in the periodical Comments on Etymology (January 19, 1990):

“My understanding of the origin of toast is that the French had a custom of floating spiced bits of toast on various drinks (including coffee and tea) on festive occasions.  It is certainly possible that some spoiled wines were served this way, so that the spoilage could be hidden by the spices, and also so that the toast could absorb some of the odors….  While charcoal and probably toast can remove ethyl acetate, this is a short-term solution because they are not very effective at removing acetic acid.  The primary use of charcoal in the wine industry is the removal of unwanted color and some off-odors.”

It is thus safer to forget for the time being the antiquity and the Middle Ages and start with the 18th century.  The main revision of Samuel Johnson’s famous 1755 dictionary was made by H. J. Todd, who expanded Johnson’s etymologies and added a good deal of new material to the great work.  He pointed to the now well-known passage from Tatler (June 4, 1709).  It has been reproduced many times, also in The Century Dictionary.  The OED, naturally, did not pass it by either.  There will be no harm if it appears here too in its original orthography:

“It happen’d that on a publick day a celebrated beauty of those times [of Charles II] was in the Cross-Bath [at Bath] and one of the crowd of her admirers took a glass of water in which the fair one stood, and drank her health to the company.  There was in the place a gay fellow, half fuddled, who offered to jump in, and swore, tho’ he liked not the liquor, he would have the toast (making an allusion to the usage of the times of drinking with a toast at the bottom of the glass).  Tho’ he was opposed in his resolution, this whim gave foundation to the present honour which is done to the lady we mention in our liquors, who has ever since been called a toast.”

Walter W. Skeat always warned people to stay away from pretty tales about the origin of words, for those are almost always invented in retrospect.  The story told in Tatler gives no date.  In the OED, the earliest citation of a woman being called “a toast” goes back to 1700.  There is no doubt that a piece of toast was put into wine glasses at that time and earlier, but why a woman, even a beautiful one, should have been compared to toast rather than a summer’s day or something else equally evocative, remains unclear.  Many unverifiable ideas come to mind.  For example, “a gay fellow” takes the lady out, drinks to her health, and eats up the toast, intimating that after the rendezvous an even more pleasant encounter may follow by way of dessert, or that the ravishing beauty is so desirable that he would gladly “eat” her, as he is eating the toast—prosaic and vulgar.  The event on that “publick day” only tells us that some witty man made a connection between a lady in the bath and a piece of toast in a wine glass (because she, by her very presence, turned water into wine).  It is even possible that the event became widely known, but it, most certainly, did not inaugurate the use of toast with the sense “charming woman.”  The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology summarizes the situation so: “…orig[inally] favourite lady whose health is drunk.  Said to have been so named as being supposed to flavour the bumper like a spiced toast in drink.”   I am afraid that even this cautious hypothesis may be too bold.  In any case, the English word acquired notoriety, became popular in the English speaking world, and made its way into several other languages, including German and Russian.

Finally, I would like to mention that there is a type of Afro-American narrative poetry called toast.  The origin of this name is debatable, but some connection with Engl. toast can be taken for granted.  Definitive etymologies are hard to come by.  So how do you discover or fail to discover them?  Here’s how…. Read this blog.

P.S.  I cannot finish my bout without reproducing the kind offer of Mr. Russell Cross:

“When you embark on your next book An Etymologist’s Guide to Drinking, let me offer to be a field agent.  I’m pretty sure I can help in the collection of words and I’m willing to visit as many bars as it takes to ensure you have an adequate corpus.  I ask nothing more than a mention in the Acknowledgments and a contribution to my extended sojourn at the ‘Charlie Memorial Rehab Clinic’.”

Thank you very much indeed.  This offer is especially useful because I can no longer consume alcohol with the ease that at one time was my hallmark.  After I got my BA, I taught English at a rural school for three years.  At the end of every day, we met in the teachers’ room for an hour or two of drinking homebrew (not participating would have looked like a terrible affront).  Its production was prohibited, but the police also enjoyed the swill, so that there was no danger.  The assistant principal, who presided at our feasts (a lot to drink on an empty stomach and very little, if anything, to eat), was an alcoholic.  Fortunately, I did not become one, and I never again in my life drank so much.  But during those “after hours,” I discovered the law, here being published for the first time.  Some people get drunk from the waist down, whereas others do so from their feet up.  The members of the first group do not realize they are drunk and cause a lot of mischief.  It was my good luck to belong to the second group, which means that I could no longer dance, while my head remained clear and I knew when to stop.  Also, I had a high threshold for alcohol and easily drank my colleagues under the table (a great advantage, but a poor spectacle).  The problem was returning home in the dark.  Of course, now I walk around cocktail parties with a glass of orange juice (which I detest), listen to banalities of the people I’ll never meet again, and spew memorable platitudes of my own.  So I do need a field agent.  Thank you again!  (Sorry for this digression, but those who have followed “The Oxford Etymologist” during the five years of its existence know that I have not lavished them with episodes from my autobiography.  Nor am I going to do it in the future.)

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    Thanks. Here are three uses from 1705. “Lady Carlisle, She o’er all Hearts and Toasts must reign, Whose eyes outsparkle bright Champaign.””…Britains own your beauties claim, and with their Native Toasts enroll your name.””…Ladies …sparkle all the year, are chosen Toasts.”
    A New collection of poems relating to state affairs… (London, 1705).

  2. Stephen Goranson

    I should have added that all three quotes (above) are in a poem titled (p.545) The Toasters. Written by the Toasting-Club.

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