Etymology of Toast: Why is it called a toast?

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A toast is a piece of lightly scorched bread, right? So why do we call the raising of our glasses at events like weddings, a toast?

Toasted bread and raising a wine glass in a toast really do have more in common than it first appears. Both words originate from the Latin word, tostus which means “scorch” or “burn”. This makes sense for the toasted bread, but how does it relate to the other variety of toast? Well, it’s because the wine glasses people used to raise as they said their good wishes, contained pieces of toast.

People put toast inside their wine glasses?! You’re joking!

No, I’m not pulling your leg. In the past, people really did used to stuff a piece of toast in their wine glasses.

Why on Earth did people put toast in their wine?

There are a few possible reasons behind this habit:

Reason 1: To keep the dregs at bay

Before the days when wineries had sophisticated filtration systems able to make beautifully clear wine, build-up of bitter sediments in wines was common. This meant that unsavory bits and pieces were often found at the bottom of the glass. Sticking a piece of bread or toast at the bottom of the glass helped soak up the residue, acting as a sort of filter to ensure you didn’t get a mouthful of bitter granules.

Reason 2: To take away some of the wine’s acidity

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Some believed that burnt toast made the wine less acidic, making it more palatable.

Reason 3: To flavor the wine

For several centuries, around 1500-1700, it was customary in Britain to add flavor to wine by sticking a piece of spiced toast into the glass.

Reason 4: To soak up some unpleasant flavors and chemicals

When bread burns, one of the chemicals that is formed is a type of charcoal. Plain old charcoal from burnt food doesn’t have a great reputation where health is concerned, but it does share some qualities with a chemical that is used today to clean our water in water filters. This chemical is “activated charcoal” or “activated carbon”. Due to the shared properties between food-charcoal and activated-charcoal, it is possible that the charred bread was able to absorb and crudely filter out some of the unpleasant flavors and chemicals within the unrefined wine.

Ok, so toast was put in wine glasses. This still doesn’t explain how the phrase “to raise a toast” came into being…

The process by which the toast got its name is through a process called metonymy. This is when you associate one object (object A) with another thing (object B) to such an extent that eventually you stop calling object A by its name and instead call it “object B”. In our case, object A was the wine glass, and object B was the piece of toast it contained. Eventually when people raised their wine glasses, they began calling it “raising a toast”.

This metonymy can be traced back to around the 1700s, which is where the word “toast” was first seen to be used in this new context.

Related Articles
- Origin of the Toast: Why do we toast?

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