Q From Alan Smith: I’ve been told that the verb to toast, to propose the health of a person, comes from an old winemaking technique in which sediment was removed from the wine in the neck of the bottle below the cork by soaking it in a piece of toast. Can this possibly be so?
A I scratch my head in puzzlement. There are several stories that attempt to explain how the word for browned bread led to a vinous wish for somebody’s good health, but yours takes the biscuit, or even the toast. How you get from a piece of toast in the neck of a bottle to a public gesture of approbation?
Though people have been drinking each others’ healths with wine since ancient times, toast turns up in this sense for the first time around 1700. To begin with, it was used in the specific sense of asking the company to praise the qualities of a lady who was the belle of the society season, this lady being called the toast. The usage puzzled the intellectuals of the day, who couldn’t work out where it came from (so we shouldn’t be too surprised that people are still having trouble with it).
In 1708 Joseph Addison speculated on the matter in The Tatler. He connected the idea with an incident in the spa town of Bath in the time of Charles II:
It happened that, on a public day, a celebrated beauty of those times was in the Cross Bath, and one of the crowd of her admirers took a glass of the water in which the fair one stood, and drank her health to the company. There was in the place a gay fellow, half fuddled, who offered to jump in, and swore, though he liked not the liquor, he would have the toast. He was opposed in his resolution; yet this whim gave foundation to the present honour which is done to the lady we mention in our liquor, who has ever since been called a toast.
It would seem that the half-fuddled gay fellow (gay, of course, in the old sense of being merry) was thinking of the then common practice of floating a piece of toast steeped in spices in a glass of wine to give it a special piquancy. (Nutmeg and sugar were the usual flavourings.) To his thinking, the lady in the bath was like the spicy piece of toast in the wine.
Nobody today believes the story of the gallant and the lady in the bath, which is even more exotic than the one about the wine lees, and which might have been invented by Addison with tongue in cheek. But this evolution of ideas is almost certain to be the origin of the noun and verb in the congratulatory sense.
Incidentally, the tale you recount may be a muddled conflation of the true origin with some knowledge of the traditional method of making champagne, in which fermentation continued in the bottle to provide the sparkle. To remove the dead yeast after fermentation was complete, the bottle was inverted so that the lees accumulated in the neck, the neck was frozen and the bottle turned right way up again and uncorked. The pressure of the gas above the wine in the bottle blew out the ice plug together with the trapped lees. The bottle was then quickly recorked before any fizz was lost.