From the Georgian supra, to American Revolutionary pep talks, Katrina Alloway explores the cultural history and meaning of toasting with a glass and a few words.
Sláinte, prost, kanpai… Is “cheers” the most searched-for word in the world traveler’s translation app? I hear you protest. Surely that should be a greeting? Let’s be honest: We may all voyage with good intentions, but whether you’re a silver-tongued polyglot or a stalwart monolingual, it’s easy to be befuddled when put on the spot to remember newly learned vocab—especially when the appropriate greeting can depend on the time of day, gender (both yours and that of the person you are addressing), the level of familiarity or formality, and so on. All of which makes a straightforward salutation deceptively complex, and so we hide behind a simple and globally recognized “hello.”
Far from home, time passes. Somehow, you are managing to get by. You start to feel a smug sense of relief. You may be that most maligned of all creatures—a tourist—but still, you are feeling your way through your foreign sojourn. And then your host suggests opening a bottle of wine. You can see it is a good one. Lucky you! Or perhaps a friendly diner at a neighboring table, in the generous spirit of wine, offers you a glass. If you are going to lip-smack your way through their offering, then attempting the host’s mother tongue for the toast is the minimum required by etiquette. Thank goodness for smartphones… Genatzt! Gān bēi! Egészségére!
This exchanging of toasts and sharing of drinks shows that you have become convivial companions. Ethnographic linguist Muriel Saville-Troike explains this as an “event boundary” that is “signaled by ritual phrases.” (Another example of this is a formal introduction that transforms strangers into acquaintances: May I introduce…? / Enchanté…) These short stock expressions show that there has been a change either in your relationship or in the situation. Other toasting transition examples are the joining of two families at a wedding: We are not losing a son but gaining a daughter; the death of a loved one: To a life well lived; or seeing in a new year: Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow your resolutions begin.
The toasting event boundary can also be a simple demarcation between the working day and evening socializing. There’s that infamous photograph of erstwhile British prime minister Boris Johnson raising a toast at a gathering at 10 Downing Street during the Covid pandemic summer of 2020. Arguably, the event-boundary theory gives further evidence that this was a social occasion that contravened lockdown rules and not, as Johnson claimed in his defense, a legitimate “work event.” Johnson was fined by the Metropolitan Police; he paid his dues and issued a public apology. Is it appropriate to mention a political spat like “Partygate” in an article on toasting? Absolutely it is, and we will return to the role that toasting plays in political debate, plus the other two topics in the taboo triumvirate—religion and sex—below. Fun, fun, fun! But before that, let’s further consider the habits around toasting.
From the heart, to high art
While the act of clinking and toasting is globally well established, there can still be some awkward culture clashes. In Britain, a raised glass and the person’s name or role is sufficient: To the bride… In other cultures, that may seem woefully brief or even rude. “I was shocked when I first came to the UK, and I saw people reading their toasts out at weddings. A toast should be spontaneous, even performative,” says Ketevan Japaridze, a Georgian national living in London. “It should come from the heart.”
In Georgia, toasting is raised to a high art. In his estimable book Eating to Extinction (2021), food journalist Dan Saladino describes a trip to meet winemaker Ramaz Nikoladze. After an exciting-sounding winery tour, they sit down for a supra, which translates literally as a “tablecloth,” but a more accurate cultural translation would be a combination of food, drink, and music. The toasting is led by a tamada, or “toastmaster,” named Luarsab Togonidze on this occasion, who, according to Saladino, “elevates drinking and eating to an almost sacred act.” His toasts are frequent and long. “This is to love. Love never goes out of fashion. Love never gets old. I want to drink for love in all of its dimensions. Every moment lived without love is wasted. With wine, food, and music, we can express love freely.”
Japaridze explains the supra idea further: “It isn’t a party, it is more structured than that, and it is the tamada’s role to keep everything moving along, so food can be served and the feasting and music can continue. Usually, tamadas are male, but you do see women joining in more now. The toast might be seconded by an alaverdi, and other people may add their comments as well. It can take a long time, so the tamada keeps some control.”
Having a toastmaster to keep time and order at a potentially rowdy festive meal is a well-established ploy with a long history; even the biblical wedding at Cana was led by a master of the feast (John 2:1–12). Tom Reddy, president of the National Association of Toastmasters, explains how in Britain, dating right back to the 18th century, toastmasters would emcee guild banquets. “They had tricks to stay sober, including a special toasting glass, which looks like a normal glass, but the bowl has only a small indent, so it just holds a thimble-full of wine. It also has a thick base, for banging on the table.”
Reddy also explains that another important toastmaster function is to ensure that protocol is followed. So, who takes precedence: the town mayor or a visiting dignitary with an OBE? “This can get even trickier at international events, such as town-twinning ceremonies, when you are combining two cultures. Having a qualified toastmaster who can help navigate honors systems really helps,” he says. “The red coat and regalia add gravitas, too.”
Honoring a person or institution, present or otherwise, has always been one of the main functions of toasting. However, who and what is deemed worthy of this tribute is constantly evolving. The classic British loyalty toast—to the King—is no longer ubiquitous, as it was back in the early 20th century, when suffragettes were released from Holloway Prison. They joined their sorority for a “prisoner’s breakfast,” one of which took place at the Savoy hotel. At the end of the meal, a toast was raised to His Gracious Majesty the King, the royal family, and the success of the women’s suffrage cause. Would a similar group of direct activists make this proclamation today? I think not.
Japaridze has lived experience of toasting as a forum for political debate. “When Georgia changed from the Soviet period to independence, we weren’t used to discussing events in the media, but we were used to toasting. So, this became our microphone, our way of public speaking. After all, in Georgian we say gaumarjos for ‘cheers.’ It means ‘victory,’” she explains.
A toast has been used as a motivational speech for other battles, as during the American Revolution (1764–91), for example: To the enemies of our country! May they have cobweb breeches, a porcupine saddle, a hard-trotting horse, and an eternal journey. And during World War II, that great orator, British prime minister Winston Churchill, was adept at raising a glass, and the roof along with it: Here’s to 1942, here’s to a year of toil—a year of struggle and peril, and a long step forward towards victory. May we all come through safely and with honour.
Shifting attitudes and sensitive subjects
Toasting evidently plays a part in political public speaking and proselytizing, but what about those other two subjects that we are all advised to avoid in polite conversation: religion and sex? Are they appropriate or too toe-curling for toasting?
Since toasts are frequently given at significant life moments, they can be a time for heightened language expressing religious or spiritual sentiment. A biblical quote such as Romans 5:5— God has poured out his love into our hearts—or the Hebrew toast—L’Chayim, “to life”—are appropriate. Religious quotations should only be used, however, with sincerity, or there is a grave risk of giving a blasphemous insult to your companions. But this doesn’t mean they can’t be counteracted with some bathos, to lower the tone and lighten the mood: May you be in heaven a full half-hour before the Devil knows you’re dead.
Turning to sex and gender, in the 21st century, attitudes have shifted enormously. For example, the British Navy has changed two of its official toasts. To our wives and sweethearts—with the repost “May they never meet”—has become the considerably less awkward To our families. And appropriately, given the Navy’s demographic, Our men has become Our sailors. Further considering diversity, it needs to be highlighted that the silk slipper is not the only footwear that can serve as a receptacle for a Champagne toast to a paramour: Brogues, loafers, spats, platforms, Dr Martens boots, spit-and-polished cowboy boots, and high-heeled sneakers are also available. Within toasting, there will always be a place for flippant and flirtatious humor. No surprise, then, that Groucho Marx was a fan: I drink to your charm, your beauty, and your brains—which gives you a rough idea of how hard up I am for a drink!
Although toastmaster Reddy is too polite to refer to sex, he advises caution when mentioning religion and politics in a toast. “Better to be diplomatic, especially if you don’t know who is in the room. So, raise a toast to nations in conflict, rather than rooting for one side.” This advocates an admirable level of tact, with which not everyone is blessed, and overlooks the unruly guest bristling with alcohol-induced indignation.
What do you do if asked to raise a glass in honor of a person or an ideology with which you disagree? Do you simply nod along to preserve the peace or speak out, perhaps with a rebuttal toast of your own? That is between you and your conscience. As Reddy says, “There have been times when I have had to make a quick exit, usually at that most inflammatory of all events, the family wedding.”
Forging and strengthening social bonds
Toasting is a form of public speaking, a social medium, for carving out public opinion, navigating change, entertaining, or simply creating an innocuous background hum. As with the Twittersphere and the Metaverse, that trio of hot subjects—politics, religion, and sex—plus humor and vacuous waffling make up the main content. Anyone can voice opinions to an audience of their peers in messages that may shock, entertain, be sincere, obsequious, or of no consequence. In turn, those peers may or may not agree, may or may not even pay attention. And as with today’s digitally based social media, historically, toasting has had its enthusiasts, but it also has its detractors.
In 1881, the Reverend Richard Valpy French presented a paper called The History of Toasting at a conference of the Temperance Society. It was later published as part of its temperance book series. The first half gives a thoroughly researched history of toasting—from “prehistory,” through to the 19th century. The second half offers robust criticism of the practice: “It measures one man’s stomach by the will, and often by the excess of another’s […]. It is a relic of the vile custom of drinking to the honour, applause and commemoration of depraved men and women, whose persons should have been despised, and whose memories should be perished. Often some mistress, pot-companion, devil-saint, or even the devil himself, for want of a better friend to drink to.”
Valpy French was not the first to be outraged by toasting. He cites St Augustine (354–430 ce), one of the Christian Church fathers. “This filthy and unhappy custom of drinking health […] is but a ceremony and relic of Pagans; and therefore, we should banish it from our feast and meetings as the poison of the devil.”
Perhaps what needs to be separated here is the act of toasting and the consumption of alcohol. Of course, drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, encouraged by toasting or other social pressures, can be problematic. But that is another discussion. At its best, the act of toasting can add significance to a rite of passage and is simply dependent on the raising of a glass, a few pertinent words, and the communal consumption of a liquid. In LM Montgomery’s novel Anne of Green Gables (1908), when Marilla and Matthew suggest that Anne Shirley officially joins the family by signing the front of the family Bible, Anne is upset that it is too “perfunctory.” A glass of raspberry cordial and a toast—To the Cuthberts—is suggested as a way of giving the occasion appropriate solemnity. Another advocate was US presidential candidate and teetotaler, William Jennings Bryan. He raised an apt toast to the British Navy in 1908 with a glass of water and the words: Gentlemen, I believe your victories were won on water. But before we get too carried away with the idea of the teetotal toast, let’s recall a classic from American Prohibition:
Here’s to Prohibition,
The devil take it!
They’ve stolen our wine,
So now we make it.
According to Adrienne Lehrer in her erudite book Wine and Conversation (2009), language has two functions: It checks understanding and communicates perception, but it also has a “phatic” role, in which it establishes and maintains social bonds. Toasting is a prime example of both. The messages conveyed by the toast are aphoristic and to the point. The medium is highly ritualistic, creating a sense of occasion and community. As J Roach wrote in his book The Royal Toastmaster (1791), “A toast or sentiment very frequently excites good humour and revives languid conversation.” Or, as every good host knows, toasting can be a useful tool to ensure a well-run event and contented guests. Raise your glasses to…
If you are called upon to propose a toast, or simply feel inspired to do so, you could follow the old Georgian tradition, as Japaridze suggests, and make it poetic and heartfelt. Alternatively, you could take toastmaster Reddy’s professional advice and go for brevity and humor. If you want to make a political, religious, or frisky statement, you are in good company, but perhaps be mindful that attitudes change, and sparks may fly. As with social media, your oration could have a huge impact or hardly raise a fizzle. You could fill your glass with vodka or water—it’s an individual choice. And if you are traveling the world, make sure your translation app is to hand. A toast fills an important social function and could pave the way to a pithy debate or even a beautiful friendship: Here’s looking at you.
Hej, juig, skál, shangwe, pozdrav, zdravím!