16 January 2024


     As frequently happens on the way to one thing, I encountered something else. 

    While doing some research, I bumped into the etymology of the expression "to toast." The phrase we use for words spoken about the bride at a wedding or a guest of honor at a banquet, I learned, is directly related to that piece of bread with jam you might be consuming while perusing your morning email or skimming this SleuthSayers offering. 

    The word "toast" is derived from an Old French word, toster, meaning to grill, roast, or burn. That word is drawn from an earlier Latin word, tostare, meaning to parch or dry out. It's no great stretch to see how this word became associated with the browning of bread served with a slathering of preserves or perhaps a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar.

     Focusing on that last flavor combination gives the jump off to the use of "to toast" as celebratory words offered with a cocktail. 

    16th and 17th-century wines might be bitter and sediment-filled. Adding a piece of spiced toast to the drink added flavor, lessened any foul smell, and perhaps acted as a sponge to trap sediment particles. The toast made the wine more drinkable. William Shakespeare mentions the practice in The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Falstaff instructs his fellow to  "Go, fetch me a quart of sack;  put a toast in 't,". 

    According to accounts, the toast was not eaten but plucked from the cup and flicked to the nearest dog. 

    The offering of kind or thoughtful words to an honored guest added to the occasion's flavor, leading those praises to be called "the toast." 

    The practice of offering kind words pre-dates their designation as a toast. People have always felt the need to give speeches while drinking. 

    That's the G version. Both Merriam-Webster and the Online Etymology Dictionary, my sources for this, also offer a bawdier explanation. That story centers around a woman taking the therapeutic cool waters of a pool near Bath, England. While she floated, a traveler happened along. He plunged his cup into the water and offered a wish for her good health. His traveling companion, possibly drunk, suggested that while he might not care for the drink, he would undoubtedly enjoy the toast. "Toast" became both the words of praise and the subject--the toast of the town. 

    A bit off-topic, but the same sources note that to use "toast" to mean that someone is a goner or has been destroyed owes its genesis to an ad-libbed line by Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. Some argue that it had earlier origins, but all agree that the movie brought this usage of "toast" to the public. Now you know who you gonna call when you want a word placed in general circulation. 

    Back to today's subject. I will raise my mug of morning coffee and offer a toast to 2024. It may be a bit late in the month for such things, but in the due course of the SleuthSayers blog rotation, this is my first opportunity of the year. 

    May all your writing be prize-winning and effortless. May all your reading inspire and entertain. May your every encounter suggest another story. May your life be free of your main character's pain. 

    As for me, the new year will prove life-changing. I'm retiring as a criminal magistrate at the end of January. I'm doing so partly because I want to devote more time to writing. The full-time job gets in the way. Or, at least in my mind, it does. I will be curious to learn whether I'll produce more in the months ahead. Perhaps the time it takes to accomplish something will merely expand to fill the time available. 

    I may lose my new-found time running down rabbit holes in pursuit of etymologies. 

    One regret about leaving the magistrate gig is that I'll be deprived of the steady stream of typos I've found in the case documents. Reporting on that collection has been a semi-regular blog topic for the last couple of years. Like faithful companions, these unintended misspeaks stood by me, ready to jump in whenever I needed to meet an imminent deadline. 

If mystery fiction teaches us anything, it's that actions have consequences. The decision to retire cuts me off from that rootstock. We'll see what happens from here. 

    But that problem doesn't need to be solved for another three weeks. For now, I think I'll pour another cup of coffee and drop something in the toaster. 

Until next time. 


  1. What a fun column, Mark! I retired last year in order to meet publisher deadlines, and I discovered an interesting thing. When your hobby becomes your work, it truly is a different perspective! Love my work, but I'm looking around for a new hobby now, which is something I never anticipated. And yes, I'll toast your retirement tonight with a glass of good red!

  2. I ditto Eve and Mel. A toast to you and your impending retirement, Mark. Congratulations!

  3. Mark, maybe leave a note in your office or on the bench, “For misspellings and malapropisms, phone Mark at…” In any event, a congratulatory toast and welcome to the, erm, writerly underemployed.

    While I was in France, I observed an oddity (to my mind) that you’ve addressed. My hosts served up a bowl that made me think of milk toast except it had inexpensive red wine instead of milk. I believe they ate the toast rather than discard it. Your research may have provided an explanation for this form of ‘French toast’.

    Thank you for the well wishes and the same to you, Mark.


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