The Origins of “Drink to one’s Health”

The phrase “drink to one’s health” is so frequently used in modern-day conversation that it seems to be a part of our language forever. Nonetheless, we must explore where did it actually originate? The words “drink” and “health” have been linked with wine for many centuries, but scholars and etymologists have debated the exact origin of this phrase.

Ironically, the phrase “drink to one’s health” does not actually imply that you should drink for the health of someone. In fact, it is a euphemism that means “to drink in celebration of someone’s health.” Interestingly, it originated from some old superstitions that you would get sick if you did not drink while drinking for someone’s health.

The concept of drinking to celebrate health is not new; evidence of this can be found as early as the 5th century BC. However, the phrase is more commonly used presently in its abridged form, “drink to your health,” with both forms of the phrase being extensively documented during the 1600s.

Roman Empire Era

This phrase is believed to have originated during the times of the Roman Empire. The Romans would draw a glass of wine and drink to their family members’ health at gatherings. Therefore, it was common courtesy for those present to also drink for each other’s health. Nowadays, one may throw back a shot of tequila, sip on a beer, or try a glass of wine as an act of drinking for someone’s health. According to many historians, the phrase “drink to one’s health” is also believed to have originated from a chronicle where three men got sick while they were drinking wine[1].

After they all recovered, they vowed never to drink alcohol again and gave it to their maid instead. Wine has a long and complicated history, but the word “toast” and the gesture are both relatively new additions to the drinking tradition. It is unclear when exactly “toast” first came to describe an act of drinking, though it is likely that the term was first coined in reference to a drink some time during the 16th century. Toasting as we know it today likely originated from ancient Rome or Greece.

Drink to one's Health

Celebration by Kate Hliznitsova

In both cultures, there was a practice of dropping a piece of toast into wine or ale before drinking it, a custom followed out of superstition and not for taste. Nonetheless, there could still be a rationale for these customs. The Romans believed that spilled wine would protect them from evil spirits; placing toast in their cups was thought to soak up any potential poison they might have consumed during their festivals and celebrations.

While Greeks did not believe their lives were in danger after every meal, they would still practice this ritual out of their apprehension that their guests might be jealous and try poisoning them at feasts. Regardless, these customs eventually died out as people began mixing their wines with water before consumption.

Consequently, the mixture served to dilute any potentially harmful substances. Regardless of all such superstitions and apprehensions, the society never completely abandoned using toast as part of their celebration rituals.

Origins of the word “Toast

The word “toast” was invented in the Middle Ages, before wine glasses were widespread, to ensure nobody was trying to poison each other by sneaking contaminants into everybody’s drink. [2]

If you’ve ever watched a movie that depicted the Middle Ages, you probably know about the toast, a piece of bread that was soaked in wine and then eaten by everyone as a way to ensure nobody was trying to poison anyone. In fact, the word “toast” stemmed from this practice.

Wine glasses were not widespread in the Middle Ages. They were invented a long time after such practices. As such, people would utilize regular cups or goblets to consume their wines; however, these utensils were not very good at letting people observe what was inside.

As such, the toast was invented so that everybody could know if there were any contaminants in their drinks before they could consume them without any fear. If somebody tried to slip something into your drink when you were not paying attention (say, some arsenic), then they’d have to dip your piece of bread into it too. Thus, it would spoil their plans since everybody would be able to see something strange floating around on top of your cup’s contents!

Legend has it that there was once an ancient Roman princess named Sabina Poppaea. She may have been married to Nero at one point, though accounts vary on this point. Here is her story:

Legend of Princess Sabina

There are many legends surrounding the origins of this phrase, one of which involves an ancient Roman princess named Sabina Poppaea. While some claim she was married to Emperor Nero, others say she was his mistress or biological mother. Regardless of her relationship with Nero, it is widely agreed upon that he killed her by kicking her in the stomach when she was pregnant with his child.

It is said that after he murdered her, he cried and lamented how much he would miss her. He must have felt incredibly guilty about the situation because he immediately took action to immortalize Sabina Poppaea’s life and spirit. He erected a statue of Sabina in the Forum Romanum (the center of Ancient Rome), where people began offering libations to honor her memory. Since that time, the statement “I drink to your health!” became a common expression among Romans as they raised their cups to salute Sabina Poppaea’s eternal presence.

Origins

According to some studies, the origin of “toasting” dates back thousands of years to Ancient Greece, where the Greeks would drop a toast into a drink to add flavor and avoid drinking sediment. The term “toast” gained popularity in the 15th century when it was utilized to describe the act of adding spices or pieces of bread to one’s glass. The most famous story as to how drinking to one’s health began is that of 6th Century AD King Charlemagne (Charles).

His cup-bearer would pour his drink into a loving cup or goblet rather than handing the wine undiluted in a small cup. The such custom was adopted as it was thought that if another partook of the king’s drink, they would also share in his virtues and good fortune. The king would then pass this goblet around the room, allowing all to share his wine and good blessings by drinking from “the horn of plenty.”

As to how this became today’s phrase “drink to one’s health,” there are several theories. Some believe that “horn” is an anachronism because the word “horn” was not used until the 16th century[3]; however, some believe it was used for hundreds of years before it was formally written down in books and tablets. Either way, people have been drinking together in honor of friends and family for thousands of years!

It is believed that around the Roman Empire, women would drink a shot of spiced wine mixed with water from the ‘Venus’ Cup so that they could be saved from kidney disease and painful periods. Although the Romans were known to drink wine in large quantities, it was often diluted at room temperature or served cold. A glass would contain three to four parts water and one part wine, which is why the Romans preferred white wines over reds; whites could be easier to mix with water.

However, like most traditions, we do not really know exactly how or when the phrase “drink to your health” first originated. Some believe it was used in the Roman Empire during their frequent feasts and celebrations, while others argue that it originated somewhere in North Europe. Nonetheless, one thing is for sure: people have been using this phrase for centuries to toast good health. This can be witnessed by the fact that we still use it today.

On this Day

June 10, 1959: On this day, Alberto Antonini, a renowned oenologist, was born. He is the author of several books and articles on winemaking, wine tasting, and other wine-related topics, published in Italian and English. Antonini is a Brand Ambassador for several Italian and international producers. He frequently delivers talks, courses, and wine journey trips in Italy and abroad.

September 14, 1926: On this day, Miguel Brascó, oenologist and wine expert, was born. He has created several wines that have been recognized with different awards like the most prestigious awards, Foire aux vins (FR) and International Wine Challenge (GB). In addition, he published his work in a wide range of national and international publications.

1978 – Present: Cathy Corison, a wine expert, was born into a winemaking family in California, where she began her education at the age of six by peeling varietal grapes with her father. With over 30 years of experience today, Cathy’s incomparable knowledge and passion for winemaking have made her one of the most celebrated winemakers in Napa Valley. Not only is Cathy responsible for managing some of the best wines produced in Napa, but she also works with Napa Valley’s top restaurants to pair the perfect wine to complement their exquisite cuisines.

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References

  1. [1] “Cheers: Celebration Drinking Is An Ancient Tradition”. Culture, 2022, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/drinking-alcohol-culture.
  2. [2] Jones, Tegan. “The Origin Of Toasting Drinks”. Today I Found Out, 2022, http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/05/the-origin-of-toasting-drinks/.
  3. [3] “The Origin Of Toasting – History Of Toasts, Clinking Glasses & Cheers | The Nibble Webzine Of Food Adventures”. The Nibble Webzine Of Food Adventures |, 2022, https://blog.thenibble.com/2020/01/01/food-history-toasting-to-your-health/.

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