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Why do we say 'Cheers'?

Cheers! Salute! Santé! We all do it, no matter how you say it. But why do we clink glasses together before we drink? Where did it come from? Why do we make ‘toasts’, and will we ever stop? The answer to that last one is…. probably not.

Two girls laughing drinking wine cheers

Drinking parties have been around for a long time. Probably as long as there have been humans on the earth. There is so much historical evidence that alcohol has been part of life since almost the beginning: Neolithic pottery jars were found to contain an alcoholic brew made from oats & barley; the ancient Egyptians made beer & wine; the Mayans made pulque from fermented corn; for the ancient Greeks, teetotallers were suspicious; and in early Medieval times the drinking cups had round bases and were designed not to be put down until emptied (then were propped upside-down on the tabletop).

Historians believe that the custom of the toast comes from the ancient Greeks & Romans who believed in pouring out a portion of one’s drink before enjoying it to honour the gods. From there, it wasn’t too far a leap to honour one’s friends.

We get the term “toast” from a literal piece of bread that was dropped in the wine to make it taste better (it was thought that the bread soaked up the acidity in bad wines). Shakespeare writes it in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor where the character of Falstaff orders some spiced wine, then says “Put a toast in it.”

From the 18th century onwards, the term “toast” had morphed into the person being celebrated by the sentiment of toasting, leading to the phrase “they’re the toast of the town”.

But what about cheersing? “Cheers” originated from the old French word chiere which meant “face” or “head.” By the 18th century, it meant “gladness,” and was used as a way of expressing encouragement. For most of us today, saying “cheers” and clinking glasses is a symbolic gesture of celebration and toasting the good cheer and good health of those around us, and acknowledging the occasion as important.

In most English-speaking countries we say Cheers. In France it’s Santé, in Italy it’s Salute or Cin cin, it’s Salud for Spain, Prost for Germany, Kanpai in Japanese, Skål in Swedish – you get the idea.

Two girls drinking rosé at a winery, wine tasting

So… what’s with the clinking glasses thing? In Medieval times, people clinked their glasses and shouted and cheered loudly to ward off any evil spirits that might be hanging around. They also thought that by clinking glasses, some drink might spill onto the floor and be left there to appease any bad spirits, so they’d leave you alone. Another common reason that you may have heard about has to do with poison. Back in the day, poisoning an enemy’s drink was an easy (and convenient!) way to murder them. Knowing this, people believed that if their glasses were filled to the top and they clinked hard with someone else’s, the drinks would mix by pouring into one another. Then, by taking a sip you were showing that the drinks hadn’t been tampered with and no harm would come to you.

And do we have to look each other in the eye and not break eye contact while we cheers, or…? This theory, probably above all others, is the shakiest. Some believe that if you don’t look each other in the eyes whilst cheersing, you’ll have bad luck of varying degrees for anywhere up to 7 years.

Where this legend originated, we have no idea. But it’s better to be safe than sorry, right?

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