Q&A: Why do we raise a “TOAST”?

Group of friends toasting champagne

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?

A: No.

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