Stupid Question ™
Sept. 7, 2000
By John Ruch
Q: What is the origin of “cheers” as a drinking salutation?
A: This is a fine tribute to the wonderful absurdity of the English language: when you say, “Cheers,” you’re literally saying, “Faces.”
“Face” or “countenance” was the meaning of the original late-Latin word cara, a word whose mysterious history may include Greek, African and Spanish influence.
Old French picked up cara in the forms chiere and chere, which then entered English around 1200 as “cheer.” The meaning remained the same: “face,” or the expression on the face.
The word then became a model for how definitions tend to become more abstract over time. By 1300, “cheer” meant “mood” (presumably, as expressed on the face). “What cheer with you?” was a common greeting; it also became possible to “cheer someone up.”
“Cheer” also became equated with joyfulness; if you were “cheerful,” you were filled with good cheer.
Later in the 1300s, “cheer” could also mean a friendly party, or the food and drink at such a party. From this came the wise maxim, “The fewer the better cheer”—the fewer people at a party, the more food and drink for each.
By the 1500s, the definition was so general that “cheer” could refer to anything that gave comfort or joy.
From this, in the 1700s, came the meaning of a cry of encouragement or approval—for example, the “cheers” of a crowd.
In trying to figure out how “cheers!” became a drinking salutation, it’s tempting to go back to that 1300s meaning of booze at a party—especially since it seemed to linger as late as the 1880s in the bar term “cheerer” (a glass of booze, so named for its effect on the drinker).
But actually, the key meaning seems to be the latest—a shout of encouragement.
Around 1900, a subtle shift occurred in which the word “cheer” itself became a cheer, most notably in the plural formula, “Three cheers!”
By 1910-15, “cheers” was turning up in British English as both an informal goodbye and as a drinking salutation—in both cases clearly referring to the “shout of encouragement” idea.
However, “cheers” first had to battle the British mania for putting “o” on the end of any available word. It was quickly altered into the lighter form, “cheero,” which was altered further by British officers in World War I to become “cheerio.”
It wasn’t until after World War II that the “o” began disappearing and “cheers” became the standard drinking salutation in both England and the US.
It’s still possible to hear both “cheero” and “cheerio” in England, but their use is fading rapidly. By 1960, “cheers” had also replaced “cheerio” as an informal goodbye, and by 1970 had also come to mean “thanks” for a small favor or exchange.
Meanwhile, America cemented its approval of the more terse and macho “cheers” by making it the title of an extremely popular bar-themed sitcom.