Friday, June 3, 2011

Know your Royal Navy Toasts

The tradition of toasting, in the sense of offering a dedication to a shared round of communal drinking has ancient roots.  In various cultures it was not uncommon to pour off the first bit of a drink “for the gods” or to offer a libation in the form of pouring some wine onto an altar.  So, where does toast fit in?

In England it was common to flavor wine with a bit of browned or spiced toast.  In the early 1700s a poet wrote of a lady whose name would “flavor a wine like spiced toast”.  This seems to be the origin of associating a specific individual or institution with the ceremony of “toasting”.

Unless there are foreign visitors in the wardroom it is forbidden to propose any toast prior to the Loyal Toast to the health of the British Sovereign.  If there are foreign officers present it is considered good manners to drink to the health of their head of state first.

Never clink glasses.  If a glass is heard ringing it is said to herald the death of a sailor.  If you stop the ring the bad omen is converted to the death of two soldiers.  That is not considered to be much of an issue.

On shore non drinkers may politely drink a toast in water.  But aboard ship this is bad luck, and suggests that the object of the toast will die by drowning.

There are, or were, specific toasts for each day of the week.  As related to me by a couple of Royal Navy Lieutenants* at a pub some years back:

Sunday:  “Absent friends, absent friends.”

Monday: “Our ships at sea.”

Tuesday:  “Our men.”

Wednesday:  “Ourselves, as no one else is likely to bother.”  Alternate version: “Ourselves, Our Swords, Old Ships”  Old ships being a reference to shipmates.

Thursday:  “A bloody war or a sickly season.”  (The death of more senior officers was the most reliable route to promotion in the age of sail).

Friday:  “A willing foe and sea room.”

Saturday:  “To our wives and sweethearts.”  This is the only toast said to still be in common use, as is the customary response from the youngest officer present “May they never meet!”

*In the Navy the rank is pronounced much as it would be in America.  Lieutenant derives from the French phrase en lieu tenant, or holding a place for another.  The British army uses the variant “Leff-tenant” for perverse reasons known only to themselves.


Hadriana's Treasures said...

"The British army uses the variant “Leff-tenant” for perverse reasons known only to themselves."

I chortle. Must look into this. I've always wanted to know why we have this pronunciation...

Anonymous said...

The rare Old French variant spelling luef for Modern French lieu ('place') supports the suggestion that a final [w] of the Old French word was in certain environments perceived as an [f]

Tacitus said...

Sad news, sad news indeed. In the paper today I read that the Royal Navy is modifying the "Wives and Sweethearts" toast. Now it will be "to our families".

Yes, there are now female RN officers. Times change. But must traditions this long established do so as well?

Whatever is the world coming to.


Mick M (ex RN) said...

The RN uses the 'Lefftennant' pronunciation whereas the army go with 'Lootennant' but other than that and Tacitus2's comment a good article. The other toast modified was Tuesday's which has gone from "our men" to "our sailors" to keep the Jennys happy

Tacitus said...

Mick M

Appreciate the clarification. As it happens I am currently reading one of the "Bolitho" series by Alexander Kent and am entirely immersed in Age of Sail nautical jargon!


Unknown said...

I have always liked the toast Qceans of gore, prizes galore