During parties and celebrations, the distinctive sound of clinking glasses followed by a tap on the table is a well-known gesture. This special tradition, seen during toasts, has a deeper meaning. Here, we explore the origins and meanings behind tapping glasses after “Cheers!” But why do we do it? Why do we say cheers and what does it mean?
Why do we say cheers?
Borrowed from the French, “chiere” the original word, means “face” or “head,” and it was used to encourage social interaction. The British, who received their fair share of French language influence after 200 years of Norman rule, embraced and reshaped the word. By the 1700s, it meant something a bit different. Beyond its roots, “cheers” symbolized joy. Raising a glass and saying this word became an earnest expression, conveying happiness across time and cultures.
The term “cheer” comes from Anglo-French, ultimately traced back to Medieval Latin cara and possibly Greek kara. All three words signify “face,” and early English “cheer” (often as “chere”) reflected this meaning in medieval texts. By the late 1300s, “cheers” shifted its association towards happiness rather than sadness, seen in phrases like “faces full of cheer” or “spreading holiday cheer.”
Over time, it encompassed joyful hospitality, entertainment, and food and drink at festive gatherings. The saying “The more the merrier, the fewer the better cheer” emerged from this concept. In the 16th century, “cheer” came to denote anything that brings joy, like “words of cheer” or “a cup full of cheer.” The verb form emerged in the 14th century, meaning to uplift from sadness, evolved into “make glad,” and eventually “encourage into action.” Sailors adopted it for ship salutations by the 17th century.
The Significance of tapping glasses
Cheers: An Ancient Bonding Ritual
Throughout history, tapping glasses connects people, forged by the need to bond and trust. Across cultures, clinking glassware symbolizes unity, a silent agreement to gather, share, and celebrate in harmony. The use of a phrase to inaugurate celebratory libations did not originate with the French. In times of festivity, the ancient Greeks would utter “to our health.” Similarly, the Romans employed various expressions to raise a toast to their emperors, all signifying the commencement of revelry or feasting. Ancient toasts were probably, in fact, even much less cheerful…
According to the International Handbook of Alcohol and Culture, toasting “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!'” In Ancient Peru, the Incas abundantly consumed the ritual corn beer (chicha de joja) which may have started as a ritual sacrament to the ancestors. It was common for the first sip of the brew to be ritually given to the dead.
This comes as no surprise: the two oldest archaeological pieces of evidence for fermented beverages are linked to funerary rites. The earliest documented intentional fermentation of a drink is found in Jiahu, China, dating back 9000 years. In 2003, a biochemical analysis of residues discovered in 16 shards unveiled indicators of three fermented beverages—rice (calcium oxalate), honey (traces of wax), and fruit (tartaric acid/tartrate), hawthorn, or cherry-cornaline.
Similarly, Gobleki Tepe (possibily 12,000 years old) reveals indications of calcium oxalate, which might also imply remnants from the brewing process. In both instances, these beverages were closely intertwined with the spirits of the deceased: the pottery shards were situated directly above tombs. Researchers now speculate that Gobleki Tepe served as an ancient pilgrimage center, potentially marking the world’s first temple.
Warding off evil spirits
There are quite a few of stories out there on the role of poisoning and trust in knocking a few mugs together to inspire confidence. The reason I am skeptical with this theory is that the literature on poisoning is filled with mishaps and failures. It would have been extremely difficult to produce a lethal poison even in ordinary times, let alone a poison that could retain its full effect with accurate dosing, in alcohol.
The other reason why I am skeptical is because there are simply not that many stories of beer-related poisoning in the middle ages. In fact, stories of beer-related poisoning come much later, as of the 19th century. The main problem with beer until the 15th century was that it was a very unstable product with little actual control over the quality, which meant the main concern was not so much assassination attempts but a bad product…
However, there is an argument to be made that some of the bad product was indeed very bad. This is because inn owners and publicans, who purchased beer barrels, needed to both have affordable ale and beer and get rid of contaminated beer. On occasion, they may have added the occasional dose of psychedelic plants, contaminated rye, chicken blood and sulfur. But not with the intention of killing their clients. Could the odd traveler have tried to pour some nasty potion into the beer? Absolutely, but it may have been easier to poison food.
Kathryn Kane, a Historian focused on the Regency Era in England, explored the particular role of a chemical compound named strychnos in beer contamination. Kane links the emergence of beer poisonning with the discovery of the chemical properties of Strychnos nux-vomica tree to the first cases of deliberate alcool poisoning in 19th-century France.
To cope with financial challenges, many publicans and tavern-keepers in the 19th century turned to a solution involving water and strychnine. Bitters, the popular choice of beer, were often diluted with water, reducing their bitterness. Strychnine, an extremely bitter alkaloid, was then added to restore the beer’s bitterness and enhance its foam.
This practice spread, particularly during the Napoleonic era, aided by lax enforcement of adulteration laws and affordable strychnine imports. The trend was likely initiated by a chemist named Jackson in London, and its prevalence grew as beer taxes rose. Strychnine deliveries were frequent, especially towards the end of the week when publicans prepared for bustling Saturday sales.
While quite probable, the social rituals around alcohol are as more strongly connected to etiquette and religion than they are about fear of poisoning. One of the best analysis on the topic of divine protection comes from a great blog on the history of beer:
« On the third binge into the books, I leafed past the Eucharist, and yet further back into pagan practice. I found that the Germanic tribes would bang their cups on the table before drinking in order to knock out the ghosts, and I have heard that the Congolese natives would ring bells before emptying their cups for the same reason. Nomadic horsemen, like Atilia, decorated their cups and wine sacs with bells and other “clinking clutter” for the purpose of keeping out the evil.
The Tibetans tapped their cups of Kumiss before drinking. From the citizens of the Shang Dynasty crying “Kaan” to Nordic tribes in the caves of Odin cracking skulls and shaking leather wine sacs, all peoples seemed to make noise before drinking. However, it seems that not all cultures necessarily took part in the ritual of clinking glasses. »Cloudlesly The Real origins of Cheers
What does science say about clinking mugs?
Common wisdom says that clinging your mug to the table helps clear the foam, forcing carbon dioxide to dissipate and making it easier to cheerfully chug down your shot or beer. Is there any scientific proof of that?
Researchers have discovered that the physics behind the formation of mushroom clouds in beer bottles when tapped share similarities with the development of atomic bomb clouds, though the causes are distinct. Javier Rodriguez presented his findings at a scientific gathering in Pittsburgh, which stemmed from a casual discussion at a pub. Wondering about the cause of beer tapping resulting in a frothy explosion, the team conducted controlled experiments in a lab, capturing the process with high-speed cameras.
A stiff hit on the bottle’s top sets off miniature explosions inside the beer. These tiny blasts create mushroom clouds similar to those generated in the air by an atomic bomb. After you clink your mug, “In one second, most of your beer has really turned into foam,” says physicist Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez of Carlos III University in Madrid. “You better have put the bottle into your mouth, because you need to drink whatever is coming out.”
The study concludes that tapping beer bottles can’t be prevented from producing mushroom clouds of foam. The physics of beer bottle tapping leading to mushroom cloud-like foam formations mirror certain aspects of atomic bomb cloud development. The research, initiated during a casual conversation at a pub, involved experiments to understand the process. Tapping generates waves that cause bubbles to pulsate, eventually leading to their violent collapse. The resulting fragments rapidly grow, rise, and create mushroom-like structures in the beer, causing foam eruption. The team is exploring broader implications of these findings.
Where Do Toasts Come From?
The concept of toasting, closely intertwined with the act of clinking glasses, has a rich history that spans centuries and cultures. The term “toast” has its origins in ancient Rome, where a piece of toasted bread was used to enhance the flavor of wine. However, this didn’t become every Day practice until England add its own middle-class twist on the old tradition.
One popular explanation for the term “toast” comes from the 17th century and is related to the addition of spiced or flavored pieces of toast to drinks, such as wine or ale. In the past, wine often had sediment or a harsh taste, and ale could be sour. Toasts of spiced or toasted bread were placed in these drinks to improve their flavor and aroma. This practice was particularly common during earlier times when table manners and cleanliness were not as refined as they are today.
As this tradition of adding toast to drinks continued, it eventually led to the practice of raising one’s glass and proposing a toast to someone’s health or well-being during a social gathering. Over time, the act of proposing a toast became associated with offering good wishes or expressing sentiments of camaraderie and celebration. The term “toast” came to represent both the act of raising a glass and the words spoken during the act.
In addition to the culinary explanation, there’s also a story that involves the name of an actual person. The story goes that in the 17th century, a British nobleman named John Hamdon was known for his fondness for spiced toast in wine. At a gathering, he was toasted by his friends, and this act of raising a glass in his honor became known as a “toast.”
While the exact origin may be a bit unclear and likely has several contributing factors, the term “toast” in the context of celebratory drinking has its foundations in English social customs, language evolution, and culinary practices. It has since become a widespread tradition in many cultures around the world.
Now that you know the history of cheers, it’s time to gather some friends and flex that knowledge! From the ancient Greeks to the middle ages, the act of saying cheers and raising your glass has stood the test of time. So, as you clink those glasses and share in the joy of the present, remember the echoes of tradition that resonate through the ages. Cheers to new memories that honor the old!
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