Wednesday, 15 June 2011

What I did at half-term, part two

So . . .

So this was the story the storyteller (at the pagan wedding, on a west Penwith hillside) told about why we ‘toast’ people . . .

Long ago, when giants and monsters roamed the land . . . Actually, he didn’t say that or anything much like it but what he did say did have that kind of Arthurian vibe. What he did say that was that once upon a time . . . Actually, he didn’t say that either, but he did set it in a semi-mythical past.

He did say: people used to put a piece of toast in a glass of wine then hand it around for everyone to drink; and when they had done this, the person being honoured would eat the toast.

When he told this story, everyone (myself included) went: ah-ha, so that’s where the word toast comes from, how come I haven’t wondered about it before, now I’ve got an answer to a question I’d never even posed. A truly shared moment. Honest.
Then, being me and in possession of an online Oxford English Dictionary account, I looked it up.

Ah. This is what I found . . .

A figurative application of toast n.1, the name of a lady being supposed to flavour a bumper like a spiced toast in the drink.

See the Tatler, No. 24, of 2 June, and No. 31, of 18 June, 1709, in both of which toast is explained as a new name, upon the origin of which ‘the Learned differ very much’. No. 24 says that ‘many of the Wits of the last Age will assert’ that the term originated in an incident alleged to have occurred at Bath in the reign of Charles II, 1660–1684. No. 31 is silent as to the incident, and gives the account cited below.

No. 31 is a citation from a piece by the man who, more than any other Englishman, invented journalism (and whose name was taken for a pub near my house — till very recently owned by friends of mine), Sir Richard Steele.

1709 R. Steele Tatler No. 31. K8 Then, said he, Why do you call live People Toasts? I answered, That was a new Name found out by the Wits to make a Lady have the same Effect as Burridge in the Glass when a Man is drinking.

There is another citation, in which the more modern meaning is given — the one in which it refers to the act of drinking, rather than a young (or not so young) woman.

1746 H. Fielding True Patriot 21 Jan. 1/2 A Toast, which you know is another Word for drinking the Health of one's Friend or some Person of Public Eminence.

So . . . a toast to the storyteller for his tall story.

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