“[T]he act of raising one’s wine glass in the direction of the person one wishes to honor has been a form of nonverbal communication integral to French culture since its historical beginnings. It is probably a secular vestige of ancient sacrificial libations in which a sacred liquid was offered to the gods: blood or wine in exchange for a wish, a prayer summarized in the words ‘Long life!’ or ‘To your health!’”
— International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture
However integral it is to their culture, the French didn’t invent the act of toasting someone with a drink—Ulysses offers a toast to Achilles in the Odyssey—and they definitely didn’t invent the word for it. The etymological origins are murky, but the best guess is that it derived from a tradition of flavoring wine with spiced toast.
Whatever its origins, the ritual has survived centuries of cultural ambivalence toward alcohol. Paul Dickson, author of the 1991 book Toasts, notes that the custom continued straight through the era of illicit liquor, though often with some commentary thrown in:
“Here’s to Prohibition
The devil take it!
They’ve stolen our wine,
So now we make it.”
You can, of course, offer a toast with non-alcoholic beverages, but it always feels a little phony. Maybe we know that the gods won’t really be satisfied with 7Up or sparkling apple juice. In any case, there is something satisfying and signficant-seeming about the raised glass, the clink of crystal or pewter or cheap highball rim, and the swig, shot, or swallow of beer, whiskey, or wine. It is an all-purpose act of companionship, celebration, sympathy, support. You can offer toasts to the newly born, the newly wed, the recently deceased, the long departed.
But while we still drink plenty of toasts, we have somewhat lost the art of toast-making. It used to be a popular form of verse and entertainment, with partygoers competing to top each other in puns and rhymes. These days, apart from the obligatory recitations at wedding receptions, most toasts don’t venture far beyond “Happy birthday” or just “Cheers!”
I have been thinking about this lately, because I am nearing a drink-worthy point in my own life. This week, I’m leaving Metro Pulse to take a new job in the administration of the incoming city mayor. (Whose name I won’t even type, because that would probably be some kind of conflict of interest. But you know who I mean.) This is the second time I’ve left the warm, disheveled nest of MP, and it will probably be the last.
Metro Pulse has given me two of the best jobs I’ve ever had. No other newspaper has been as much fun or provided as much freedom. In the current, blasted landscape of American print journalism, I’m not sure if there’s a better place to work—not just in Knoxville, but in the country. If there is another outlet that would let me simultaneously cover local and state politics, interview transsexual porn stars, conduct a limerick contest, and delve into the lyrical and cultural significance of Taylor Swift, I don’t know what it is.
The paper marked its 20th anniversary this year, a milestone reached through the cumulative efforts of dozens if not hundreds of writers, editors, designers, salespeople, freelancers, office managers, interns, and—crucially—people willing to write paychecks to all of the above. I have benefited from all of their work, and so (I think) has Knoxville.
Paul Dickson’s website, toastsbook.com, offers examples of toasts for many occasions, from birth to death to love. It does not suggest any appropriate acknowledgment of a weekly newspaper. So all I can say is: May your ink not run dry or your presses go cold. Here’s to deadlines made and missed, ears to the ground and eyes on the scene, secret histories and citybeats, and the readers who for whatever reason keep coming back every week. I will miss all of it, and all of you. Many thanks.