12 June, 2007

A health to the company

Otia Imperialia, Book II, chapter 17:
It was Hengist's daughter who introduced the well-known custom of extending a solemn invitation to drink by saying, 'wes hāl', which means 'be merry'; to this the guest in turn replies: 'drink hāl', that is, 'drink merrily'. In the British tongue the corresponding words are cantinoch and boduit.
Nowadays we write, 'wassail' and 'drink hail'—and that's 'hail' as in hale, ie. whole or healthy, rather than merry. According to the OED, the words are not attested as toasts in either Old English or Old Norse, but were probably first used as such by the Danes in England; the earliest reference is from Geoffrey of Monmouth, and in English from Lawman's translation of Wace's Brut, itself based largely on Geoffrey. The first time I toasted a health with Mrs. Roth—it was a small glass of port, my favourite drink, which she was happy to essay, and relieved to enjoy, on the occasion of her 30th birthday, spent in the City of Love; we were not yet married, but on our way—I softly called 'wassail', and was disappointed not to receive the correct response. (You say I have unreasonable standards? This I expected purely because she counts herself a mediaevalist, and an Anglo-Saxonist to boot. Still, she knew for next time.)

Gervase's editors footnote thus:
Professor Patrick Sims-Williams and Dr Marged Haycock suggest that cantinoch could be Old Welsh (or Cornish or Breton) can(t) tin uch, meaning 'with bottom up', while boduit could be Old Welsh (or Breton) bod (d)it, meaning 'goodwill to you' or 'thanks to you', influenced by Middle Irish is buide duit, 'it is well for you', or else equivalent to Modern Welsh boddwyd, 'it/he has been drowned', which is used metaphorically to mean 'celebrate'. The word can is attested in Welsh from the beginning of the seventeenth century with the meaning 'tankard'; it is quite conceivable that this loanword from English can was in the language for centuries before its first attestation, in which case the phrase would mean 'tankard bottom up!'
I was surprised to discover that the OED reliably attests 'can' as far back as 1375, from John Barbour's The Bruce—surprised because I'd assumed the word to be an abbreviation of 'canister', which, however, only appears in English in the late 17th century, and then as a learned classicism. 'Canister', it turns out, has a Semitic root, by way of Greek, while the ulterior origins of 'can' are unknown.

I approve of toasts. Not enough are drunk these days; the joy of tradition has given way to a flaccidity of least resistance. I make it a point of honour to toast when drinking in company. I approve of the call-and-response, too—it seems especially appropriate for a toast, as a means of encouraging participation among drinkers, or more generally, as an impediment to carelessness. To drink with a man must be to test his credentials as a man. How delightful, then, that the toast prescribed by the Royal Navy for Saturdays should be:
To sweethearts and wives—
and that one's compotators should respond, whether audibly or not,
. . . pray they never meet!
In two weeks Gawain is coming to visit. He has promised to bring port—real port, bought in Portugal—and I shall insist, of course, on a toast. No doubt I shall learn a Polish tradition or two; but I trust, in the meantime, that when I say 'wassail' he will be able to respond with assurance.


Andrew W. said...

I too am a lover of toasts, and am constantly frustrated by the fact that most people cannot wait to bring the alcohol to their lips to admire the wonderful social importance of drink to the human experience.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, I'm glad someone else is!

Languagehat said...

wes hāl

Why the long a? Isn't it attested as "wæs hæil"?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Good question; I don't know why the editors used that form in translation. The original Latin has 'weschail'.

Anonymous said...

i shall NOT enterprise to teach you the single most important drinking tradition of Poland: standing on the table, preferrably half-naked, and singing a series of short drinking songs between gulps; of which my favorite goes something like this:

we shall sell and drink away our grandmas little house, white little house, white little house

i shall not do it lest i am instructed to drink hemlock on account of introducing new gods and corrupting youth. but i might raise a Georgian toast. it is magnificent, but too complex too discuss here with any justice; and too long for me to copy it out here.

i just arrived in Lisbon today. i have waited 20 years to come back to this place where I had spent intense 3 days with 3 women... good to be here.