A brief history of Italy's way to toast
Of course every country has a way to say it and it is really one of the first words you learn when living in a new place. Cheers! Yes, that little special series of letters synonym with gaiety, conviviality and, if far enough into a good night out, even with a bit of a spinning head and uncontrollable laughter. Living in Ireland, I got used to the ubiquitous "sláinte," with my German mates has always been "prost." In 2006, when Italy won the World Cup, my Slovak neighbor knocked at the door with a bottle of champagne and we celebrated rising our glasses with a golden "na zdravie." In Paris, I celebrated Christmas in 2009 with a bunch of friends and it was all about the "à la santé" and "à la notre."
And in Italy? Well... Italy has a good few expressions to use, but let us face the truth, the majority of them are too crass to be reported, although I am pretty sure that any Italian you come across will be more than happy to sing along a couple of "Osteria numero..." toasting refrains for you, complete of translation.
So, instead of getting on to write an article about the many – often dialectal, often x-rated – alternatives to "cin cin" in Italy, I decided to go down the road of explaining the reasons why we Italians do toast in certain ways.
I know, I know. Here I go again with some sort of history article. What should I say: you can take the historian out of a dusty library, but you cannot take history out of an historian's mind...
Facciamo un brindisi?
When the time to celebrate comes and you anglophones make a toast, we in Italy "facciamo un brindisi." Apparently, the word comes from the German bring dir's and reached Italy through the Spanish brindis. Of course, the world started toasting its life away much earlier than modern languages appeared, as the habit to wish health to friends and family while rising drinks to the sky can be found even in the Bible.
Clear references to it come from Classical times: written proof can be found in the Iliad and the Odissey, but even more in the work of historians and archaeologists, who pieced together how the people of Greece and, later on, Rome, already knew about the well wishing properties of having a glass in honor of something or someone. The Romans, in fact, inherited the habit from the Greeks and used to initially refer to the act as bibere Graeco more, that is, drinking as the Greeks do. Apparently, the first way to announce a brindisi in Italy was the Latin propino.
Other well wishing formulas our forefathers used while drinking? Bene vos, bene nos, bene te, bene me, which roughly correspond to modern Italian alla vostra, alla nostra, alla tua, alla mia (to ye, to us, to you, to me). If you really want to do as the Romans used to do, though, rise your glass while saying propino tibi salutem plenis faucibus... something on the lines of "I am gulping this down to your health!"
Yeah, the Romans knew how to live life to the full.
And what about cin cin?
Another very common Latin expression was prosit, third person singular of the subjunctive of prodesse, which we can translate as "may this be helpful". Apparently, people used to say it to priests when, after finishing mass, they went back into the sacristy. How the verb went from churches to taverns remains a bit of a mistery.
Let us cut it short, though: Italy's best known toasting expression remains the exotic sounding cin cin.
History tells us cin cin comes from very far indeed, which explains its peculiar, eastern-like allure. It seems cin cin finds its origins in the Chinese word ch'ing, "you're welcome", often repeated twice in a row, hence giving us ch'ing ch'ing. In Victorian times, the version chin chin became popular among sailors, travellers and traders using pidgin English to communicate with one another, especially in the Canton area of China. Needless to say, the new word became a hit around Europe's ports, where it was introduced by the officers of the Royal British Army. It was however, the Italians who loved it the most, probably because of the fact it sounded so much like the tinning of glasses hitting each other.
As in Italian the "ch" sound equals the English "k", chin chin became cin cin and voilà! Italy's most popular toasting word was created.
A Classier toast
Cin cin may be Italy's most common toast, but it is not the most polite, at least according to current Galateo rules. If you want to be classy, avoid the touching-each-other's-glasses part, but simply rise them and, most importantly, avoid to say cin cin: a simple "salute" or "alla nostra" are a much better option. Contrarily to what many believe, making eye contact while having a toast is not compulsory according to Italian bon ton rules: it is more of a Central and Northern European habit, which is not necessary in the Bel Paese.