miscellany/etymology, spirit possession

Quaff While Thou Canst.

from Six Degrees of Separation (1993):

Will Smith: “Cheers, skaal, prost!”

The Other Guy: “Mud in your eye.”


why has this stuck in my mind? i have a soft spot for conspicuous refinement, particularly when part of an artful dissemblance, as opposed to a merely shabby pretense – but hardly do i keep catalogue of all such instances (only, tautologically, the most memorable). and i am interested in toasts, cheers, health-drinking (both the ritual verbalizing and the practical knocking back) but this is a more recent phenomenon, and one which i can not assure myself is unrelated to the tenacity with which the above cinematic exchange has accompanied me through the years. that it is the first thing that comes to mind perhaps every time a cheers is in order certainly speaks to its peculiar insistence.

perhaps because i had no idea what it meant, what they meant, until very recently.

it is easy to infer of course, as they are toasts, but toasts to what, and of what order and origin? whence? in other words.


well, prost or prosit is a common German or Austrian toast which like most gives us a rough “to your health!” but apparently derives from the Latin prosit, meaning “let it benefit.” i’d heard this around, and most whom i asked about it were at least familiar.


(here’s) mud in your eye!” is one i’ve long enjoyed, but which has seemed ambiguous – it has a ring of good-natured ribbing to it, and i swear i can hear it being uttered  as retort by some brassy, trollopey type in a 1940s screwball comedy. an association that i find is shared across a cursory examination of various english-vernacular message boards. one comment which struck me as particularly cute:

There is a certain sort of person who likes to express his friendship through jocular rudeness of various kinds; the expression tends to be used by people like that.

like most colloquialisms, it is difficult to sort out exactly when and where and how it came into use, but by way of origin, it seems quite believable, if maybe not provable, that it is of Biblical pedigree. John 9:6 has Jesus putting mud in the eye of a blind man to heal him, which dovetails nicely with the strange way that what sounds like an insult is actually a cheers: saying “here’s mud in your eye” seems like a diss, as having mud in your eye seems like a bad thing, but lo it actually is a cry to your health, just as the mud turned out to be beneficial (in the right hands). you, effectively, are interpellated into the position of the blind man who will be made to see, ironically, by way of historical drift, through booze.

interestingly, this is the very same blind man responsible for the familiar refrain “I once was blind, but now I see.” the whole passage reads “I do not know that he was a sinner. One thing I do know, that I once was blind but now I see” (9:26), referring to the fact (well, you know, “fact”) that Jesus was regarded by the Pharisees as a sinner for having performed this action on the sabbath. which can be interpreted further, for our purposes, as a means of justifying drinking on sundays. for those of us who feel it makes them more colourful to provide elaborate and suspect justifications for things. “it may seem like a bad idea, but this is a balm. i once was blind, but now i have had 6 mimosas (mimosae?), as is God’s will.”

side note: don’t ever put beer or let beer be put into your eyes. it is in fact not a balm, i can tell you from experience. it in fact burns.


moving on, things really start to heat up (etymologically speaking) when we get to skaal or skoal. a Scandinavian (let’s say Danish, Norwegian, etc.) toast generally understood as “to your health,” which is supposed to derive from the motion of raising your cup (circular, that), skaal/skoal being Old Norse for “bowl or cup.

a curious note in the wiktionary entry on skål (or skàl), describes it as the imperative of skale, which could be understood (infinitively) as “to toast,” or “to cheer ones health.” so what seems to have happened is we start with a noun – a bowl (skaal), which is then verbed by being used to do something – to cheers, and then, what? reverse engineered as a word, whereby over time the noun-verb acquires the other grammatical accoutrements of the verb, until what was originally a noun re-emerges as a particular expression of the verb? does this make sense? i myself am having trouble sorting it out, but it smells like something fishy is afoot, and i would be singularly grateful should someone with a little more linguistic know-how step in to clear this up.

in the interest of thickening the plot, and gratifying my own preoccupation with homophony and heavy metal, i can’t help thinking about the relationship of this word to our own skull.

particularly when one gets to thinking about the use of the skull as cup. i honestly don’t recall how i got onto this line of inquiry, but it yielded the following:

Still another morbidly fascinating custom from northern Europe is that of drinking mead or ale from the skull of a fallen enemy. The Scots and Scandinavians both practiced this primitive form of recycling, and the Highland Scotch skiel (tub) and the Norse skoal (bowl) derive from it.

– from www.toastsbook.com

so. skoal derives from the use of the skull as a drinking vessel, or just from the drinking vessel itself, which derives its own name independently of the use of skulls for this purpose? it is unclear.

the online etymology dictionary gives us:

early 13c., probably from O.N. skalli “bald head, skull,” a general Scandinavian word (cf. Swedish skulle, Norw. skult), probably related to O.E. scealu “husk” (see shell). But early prominence in southwestern texts suggests rather origin from a Dutch or Low Ger. cognate (e.g. Du. schol “turf, piece of ice,” but the sense of “head bone framework” is wanting).

without quoting at length, i can tell you that the OED says something similar. so what of the phonic similarity between skaal and skolle? is this mere happenstance? coincidence? are we to believe that the word skaal which sounds like our skull, is the word for cup or bowl, a purpose to which human heads were notoriously if only occasionally put, is in no way responsible for us calling a skull a skull now? or that the Old Norse words skalli (skull) and skål (bowl) are only coincidentally, you know, the same word?

i wish i had some dates for this shit. holy fuck.


on a more whimsical note, Lord Byron apparently had a skull cup, the lucky skunk (although it was apparently dug up in his garden, not rent from the body of a literary rival or unsympathetic critic, lamentably). he and his buddies “used to sit up late . . . drinking burgundy, claret, champagne and what not, out of the skull cup, buffooning all around the house in our unconventional garments.” oh, for those wacky romantic days!

and upon it, bless his soul, a poem!

Lines Inscribed Upon A Cup Formed From A Skull (1808)

Start not – nor deem my spirit fled
In me behold the only skull,
From which unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull.

I lived, I loved, I quaffed like thee
I died ; let earth my bones resign
Fill up – thou canst not injure me ;
The worm has fouler lips than thine.

Better to hold the sparkling grape,
Than nurse the earth – worm’s slimy brood
And circle in the goblet’s shape
The drink of Gods, than reptile’s food.

Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
In aid of others let me shine ;
And when, alas ! our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine ?

Quaff while thou canst, another race
When thou and thine, like me, are sped
May rescue thee from earth’s embrace
And rhyme and revel with the dead.

charming, no?

at the risk of becoming still more annoying a fop than i already am, i’d love to learn that by heart (my disinterest in poetry warring with my love for verbosity and skulls), but i shan’t, don’t worry. i shall, however, continue to fantasize that one day i will be able to rely that some bosom buddy will respond to my own “Cheers, skaal, prost” with a hearty “Mud in your eye,” and i to theirs in turn.


One thought on “Quaff While Thou Canst.

  1. Pingback: The Cup That Cheers Itself. « still crapulent

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