Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we'd like to raise a toast…
Q: Hey AWC, I was at a wedding on the weekend and I have a question.
A: No, catching the bouquet does NOT legally bind you to get married next.
Q: Oh, not that, but good to know. It occurred to me during the speeches. In particular, why do we “raise a toast” in these situations? Is it related to the thing I put vegemite on?
A: It’s a good question, as the idea of raising your drink in hearty unison (usually to the gods) has actually been around since the ancient Greeks. But it wasn’t called a “toast” until much later – and not before it was first a way to brown bread.
Q: Aha! So toasting bread was the original?
A: Yes, a marvellous discovery. Best thing since they sliced it.
Q: How long ago are we talking?
A: The French had the word toster in the 12th century – a verb meaning “to toast, to grill, roast, burn”. It made its way to English as “toast” by the late 1300s, meaning “to brown with heat”.
Q: So the verb came first?
A: Correct. The thing you put vegemite on took a few more decades to take hold, with the noun “toast” recorded from the early 1400s.
Q: Of course, I wouldn’t have been putting vegemite on it back then – the jar tells me it’s only been around since 1923.
A: Well, early browned bread (a.k.a. “toast”) wasn’t really a breakfast option anyway – that modern practice didn’t become a thing until the 17th century. In the early days, it was actually eaten with wine and beer.
Q: Oh, the plot thickens! Sounds like we might have stumbled upon our wedding toast, yes?
A: We’re certainly on the right track. You see, during the 1600s, toast wasn’t just a bar snack, it was actually put INTO the mug of ale. Often a spiced toast was used, adding extra flavour to the alcohol.
Q: So people were quite literally drinking toast?
A: They were. Technically, both ale and bread contain yeast, so maybe it’s not that unusual.
Q: Hey, ding ding ding, so does vegemite!
A: Yes, very good. The concept of “proposing a toast” appeared around the 1690s – but you weren’t just toasting to any old thing like we do today.
Q: To freedom! And to small yet expensive tubs of icecream!
A: Yes, none of that. It was a specific act directed solely at beautiful women. The idea of adding spiced toast to your mug was supposed to symbolise the woman as you drank to her health – hoping it would be extra flavoursome in your cup.
Q: What a very elaborate way to wish someone well.
A: Indeed. In particular, one origin story states that a beautiful woman was swimming in the waters of Bath when a drunk man dipped his cup into the water and drank it to her health. His wingman also gave it a go, but decided he preferred the soggy bread, stating that while he “did not care for the drink, he would gladly enjoy the toast”.
Q: Sounds like a fun night.
A: And so the verb “toast” got its second meaning from 1700 – “to propose or drink a toast.” And drunken gatherings haven’t been the same since.
Q: Does one “propose a toast” or “raise a toast”?
A: It can be either – they’re used almost interchangeably. Typically, “propose” may be used more in announcing that you’re about to do one (“Ahem, I’d like to propose a toast”), while “raise” might be the act itself, calling on others to raise their glasses (“so, join in with me and raise a toast to our hosts!”). There’s no hard rules though – some even say “to give a toast”. Just be consistent.
Q: Speaking of dipping toast into liquids, what’s the deal with French toast? Is it even French?
A: Ahhh, well this one is MUCH older, dating all the way back to Ancient Rome – with the first recorded recipe (dipping bread in milk and/or eggs and frying it) from an early Roman cookbook 2000 years ago.
Q: Whoa, that’s old. The recipe probably had a method that said “first discover fire, then heat evenly”.
A: Haha, not quite that old. Anyway, the Romans knew this dish as “Pan Dulcis” (fragrant bread), but over the centuries it lost any meaningful connection to the former Empire.
Q: So when did the term “French toast” appear?
A: It seems to have been 1630s England, perhaps influenced by King Charles II’s love of all things French. A more colourful theory claims that it was an early 1700s American innkeeper named Joseph French who actually named it after himself, dispensing with the pesky apostrophe-S on the end.
Q: And the French? What do they call it?
A: They see the dish as simply a use for bread that has lost its freshness – hence their name for it, “pain perdu” – lost bread.
Q: Well, thanks for allowing me to dip my bread into your cup of knowledge. I’d like to propose a toast to learning new things!
A: Actually, French toast sounds better at this time of day.
Q: Can we put vegemite on it?
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