I can’t agree with those who advocate never drinking alone. (Or, for that matter, with those who advocate never drinking before noon. Elizabeth Station opens at 10am, after all.) But it certainly is a lot more fun to have drinking companions, not least because it allows you to participate in the ritual of the toast.
Like giving thanks before a special meal, the toast offers an opportunity to do something we don’t think to do very often: to pause. It’s easy for our lives to get so busy that we lose sight of ourselves, forget that we aren’t just task-completing robots but living organisms who haven’t always existed, and who will someday (all too soon) exist no longer. A pause can be rejuvenating, a chance to feel both humbled and inspired by the simple and complex fact that we are alive. And what better way to pause than by raising a glass with a friend, a loved one, or even a stranger – all fellow passengers to the grave (as Dickens put it).
There’s just one problem: when I raise my glass, what do I say? I could say cheers, of course, but that feels so British, and even though I am an unapologetic Anglophile (I can’t stand the American version of “The Office” because it feels ripped off from the BBC version, which I watched first), it still feels like a foreign phrase on my tongue. I feel the same way about prost, though German does seem a bit more appropriate for an American beer geek, given the enormous influence exerted by the German brewing tradition on American beer. (Though it’s also vice versa these days.) Still, I don’t have any direct connection to Germany, so using a German word for such an intimate act feels inauthentic.
My search for the right celebratory phrase led me to do a bit of research into the world of toasts, and it turns out that there are six general categories:
- Health. The vast majority of toasting phrases around the world translate to benedictions of health. This is true of prost and salute, but also salud (Spanish), santé (French), sláinte (Irish), na zdraví (Czech), be salamati (Persian), and iechyd da (Welsh), among many others.
- Happiness. The English phrase cheers belongs here, of course, since we are wishing good cheer upon our drinking mates. But the Latvian phrase priekā translates to “joy” and the Albanian gëzuar means “enjoy”.
- Honor. Okay so I only found one toasting phrase that honors honor, and it’s the Turkish şerefe. But in this same general family is the Georgian toasting phrase gaumarjos, which just means simply Victory!. I’ll drink to that.
- Luck. I only found one of these too: the Romanian phrase noroc, which means “good luck”. In English that sounds like a bit of an ominous thing to say to a drinking partner, as if it’s not a sure thing that you’ll be able to drink your beer without running the risk of drowning in it.
- Life. The most well-known of this category is the Hebrew l’chaim (to life!), but the Armenian kenats and the Filipino mabuhay translate similarly. In fact, mabuhay is in the imperative mood, so it actually translates as the command, “Live!” That would certainly be a wake-up call to me if my drinking partner looked me in the eye and told me to live. Like, what have I been doing this whole time instead? Oh, right: working.
- Literal. Some toasting phrases are rather endearingly literal and uninspired, like the Scandinavian skål (Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish) or skál (Icelandic). These words just mean bowl, as in the cup from which you are about to drink. This would be a bit like toasting someone at the local brewery by saying “pint glass!”. There’s also the musical Italian phrase cin cin, which is just supposed to be a transcription of the sound of glasses clinking, or the Mandarin phrase gānbēi, simply meaning “empty cup”. Japanese and Korean phrases issue a similar command: “dry the glass!”.
What an embarrassment of riches from which to choose, right? But no matter how much research I do, that doesn’t change the fact that I’m a monoglot, and my culture is just boring old American culture. Well, in fairness, it’s not entirely boring – after all, America is responsible for the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball – but it’s not clear how that helps me with my current predicament. We don’t have a toasting phrase that is uniquely ours, and I can’t just go stealing one from someone else. (Though I suppose that, too, would be an American tradition.)
Alright, well, if I were to steal someone else’s phrase, it would be l’chaim. That seems a particularly appropriate toast when what’s in the glass is an alcoholic beverage, because it then takes on a double meaning. To the life (the yeast) that made this drink possible, and to the fact that we too are alive!
While I continue to search for the perfect phrase, maybe I’ll just go with a compromise solution: “To health, happiness, honor, luck, life, and glassware!”
What do you say when you raise a glass?