Culture

Cheers: Why We Clink When We Drink

Why we clink, before we drink
Written by Sarah Friedman

Toasting is a common tradition all over the world; but where did it come from, and why do we do it?

Toasting when drinking is common everywhere, but the reasons why are not 100% clear cut. Here’s a little on the theories behind why we clink when we drink, and why we make toasts.

Cheers!

The term ‘cheers!’ is known in many parts of the world, particularly the English-speaking ones. It’s heard in dirty pubs, upscale bars, at events, in small dinner parties, in large group settings, and for the most ordinary get-togethers. It seems when we’re imbibing alcohol, we every so often feel the need to inject a display of enthusiasm (complete with a clink of glasses), before taking a drink.

Of course, if you’re not from the English-speaking world, it doesn’t mean you won’t do the same thing, but you’ll use different words. The Spanish-speaking world gives a hearty ‘salud’ which means ‘health.’ Hebrew-speakers tell you ‘l’chaim,’ which means ‘to life.’

If you’re in Sweden you’ll hear the term ‘skol’ when knocking beer mugs (good health), in Ireland you’re likely to hear ‘sláinte,’ (health) and the Russian world toasts with ‘za zdorovje’ – to health (often mispronounced ‘nostrovia’, and technically only one of many terms that can be used for this). If you’re German, you likely clink glasses with the word ‘prost.’

It's common to clink before taking a drink
It’s common to clink before taking a drink

A cheers when drinking these days is usually done in a fun manner. When people are about to get into a brawl, they’re less likely to give each other a hearty ‘cheers’. Our use of it today is in a festive spirit; and by many accounts it has been in different parts of history. There are varying stories as to why we clink when we drink, however, with different reasons according to different cultures. Here are a few of the more popular stories behind today’s current toasting culture.

Why we clink when we drink

An actual toast (like ‘cheers’) and the act of clinking glasses, are two separate things; but we tend to do them together. When it comes to clinking glasses, there are several different theories. One of the ones most well-known, is also possibly least likely, as there is not really evidence for it, just a story. In this story, the glass clink started as a way to ensure not being poisoned when taking a drink. When glasses are clinked hard enough, a little liquid from one, transfers to the other. According to the theory, this ensured a person’s safety; since a poisoned glass, would poison the poisoner as well.

Another idea without much backing, is the one related to a necessity for making eye contact as a way of showing trustworthiness to the other party; something often associated with German tradition. People sometimes hold to this today as a form of superstition; with a fear that if they don’t make eye contact when clinking glasses; it leads to seven years of bad luck, sex, or something comparable. Whether it has any validity in history, is as unsure as clinking to avoid poisoning.

While these ideas sound interesting, they’re not really backed up in history; while other reasons for glass clinking, are. Truth be told, there are different ways to look at it, and different cultures had different reasons for what were similar practices. Some ideas are also just possibilities. Like that it’s for the sound, to titillate yet another of the senses. Drinking affects several senses, and the sound of clinking glasses, adds another one.

This might sound kind of out there as a reason to tap glasses, but this idea could have originated in Medieval times, when sound did come into play. Back then, the noise of the glasses, and the loud ‘cheers’ type proclamation that went with it, were meant to protect against evil spirits and other demons. The high volume was meant to scare them away.

The sound of glasses was possibly thought to mimic that of church bells, which further helped protect against these evils. In this scenario, it was preferable for some liquid from the drinks to spill onto the floor when clinking glasses. This was to please the demons in the hope they’d leave the drinkers alone. Sometimes, like in German traditions, the mugs were banged on the table and the drinkers yelled loudly; in a further effort to scare away the evil beings.

Raised glass toasting
Raised glass toasting

The truth is, we don’t always clink glasses when we toast; sometimes we raise our glasses to the sky. The reality is that drinking makes us feel good and happy, and these are times when people like to celebrate and be thankful. Some ancient cultures, like the ancient Greeks, are thought to have used toasting, and sacred liquor, in a sacrificial way. They asked for good health from the gods in ancient times, and toasted to the health of others.

It’s said that in Roman times, there was a great emphasis put on drinking to general health. It was decreed at one point by the Senate, that at every meal, all drinks must be toasted to Emperor Augustus. I tend to think this says way more about the ego of rulers, than a desire for people to wish each other well; but it does speak to how seriously the ritual was taken.

What about toasting in general?

The theories and history just gone over, cover both the ideas of making a toast of some kind, and of clinking glasses. And there are plenty of stories as to why these two things happen, and often together. But there’s another story about the origin of the term ‘to toast,’ and its quite different from these stories.

According to this theory, which centers on the 16th century (but which might go back to ancient Rome), the term is quite literal. It means dropping a piece of actual toast, into a glass of wine. The toast was generally burned or with spices, which was meant to add flavor to the wine. It also supposedly improved the flavor by soaking up some of the acidity in the liquid. This use of the term in this way comes up in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor.

If this was actually a thing, it changed by the 18th century. By then, the literal toast was removed from the scenario, and the term instead meant a way of honoring a person. This is the basis for the oft used term that someone is “the toast of the town.” It seems it started out with the idea of toasting a particular person; whereas now we toast to pretty much everything, including people not even in the room.

During that century, toasting became such a big deal, that toastmasters came into being to oversee the toasting process. They ensured that those who wanted to toast, got their opportunity; and that the process didn’t get out-of-hand. Toasting became so wildly popular, that people started drinking out of ladies shoes, and mixing (generally one’s own) blood with the wine. Toasting was banned in many places, as it became associated with over-consumption, and reckless behavior.

Toasting helped lead to the temperance movement
Toasting helped lead to the temperance movement

It seems toasting even helped lead to the first temperance movements (which eventually led to prohibition centuries later.) The Order of Temperance, the first temperance society, which was based out of Germany in the early 1500’s, was set on banning toasting all together. Apparently even royalty got in on this, and there’s a story that Louis XIV of France, didn’t allow the practice in his court. It was also prohibited in Massachusetts in 1634, because puritans thought it a disgraceful custom to drink to the health of others.

This led to a more upscale approach to toast-making, epitomized by the 1806 publication of The Toastmaster’s Guide by T. Hughes. This guide included topics like “Prudence and temperance with claret and champagne” and, “May we never want a friend to cheer us, or a bottle to cheer him.”

Conclusion

When we cheers today and clink our glasses, we’re not thinking of ancient traditions; we’re usually thinking about getting our buzz-on, and celebrating whatever we’re toasting to. Sometimes its fun to think about where the things we do today, actually came from though; and the history that brought us to where we are now. So, cheers, skol, sláinte, l’chaim, nostrovia, prost or whatever word you want to use. And make sure to enjoy that drink.

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About the author

Sarah Friedman

I look stuff up and and write stuff down, in order to make sense of the world around. And I travel a lot too.

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