People have been cheerful since the 15th century and have cheered one another on for just about as long. But you may be surprised, as I was, to learn that we’ve been saying “Cheers!” as “a toast or salutation before drinking,” as the OED puts it, only since the 20th century, and relatively late in the century at that—the OED’s earliest citation is from the Sunday Times of Perth, Australia, September 14, 1930: “The brief toast of ‘Cheers, dears!’” We can also credit the Aussies with Cheers! as a parting salutation (“goodbye”), which they’ve been saying since 1937. The Brits, for their part, took to saying Cheers! to mean thanks by the mid-1970s, if not earlier, according to the OED blog. You can read more about British cheers on Lynne Murphy’s linguistics blog, Separated by a Common Language.
But drinking-salutation cheers as a verb? That was new to me until very recently.
“Cheersin’ by the cupful”: a promoted tweet from Dunkin’ that I noticed (and retweeted) on November 17, 2020. The cheersin’ beverage need not be alcoholic.
It seems I was late to the party. Cheersing, with the final g, was logged in Urban Dictionary exactly 15 years ago, on December 28, 2005; the definition reads, in full, “from the verb to cheers,” which apparently was so familiar that no further defining was required. The example sentence: “When we raised our glasses, I saw Dick and Jane cheersing.” What exactly were Dick and Jane doing? Raising their own glasses. Maybe saying “Cheers!” Not toasting, exactly, which implies an honoree. Just clinking and … cheersing.
I’m 99 percent certain that “Cheers” (1982–1993) is not responsible for cheersing.
I don’t know how I’d avoided cheersing for so long. It’s all over Twitter, mostly among People Younger Than I Am. And it’s clearly caught on with ad agencies, for what to my wondering eyes did appear on December 17? This promoted tweet from Heineken.
It’s not what you cheers to, it’s who you cheers with.— Heineken US (@Heineken_US) December 11, 2020
It took me a few rounds (of reading! of reading!) to untangle “It’s not what you cheers to, it’s who you cheers with,” but I finally translated it as: “No matter the occasion, drink [Heineken beer] with people whose company you enjoy.” Which does, I admit, sound a tad stuffier than “who you cheers with.”
And so, with a new(ish) verb in our vocabulary, let’s say good riddance to this blighted, benighted year and toast the hopeful new one. Cheers!
UPDATE: Thanks to Nancy Davis Kho of Midlife Mixtape for alerting me to the Bachelorette/cheersing connection. “This season’s Bachelorette was forever saying to her stable of D-list celebrity Instagram influencer suitors, ‘Should we cheers that? Lets cheers to love!’ and I’d yell OMG it’s NOT A VERB.” Or as that Bachelorette, Tayshia Adams, told Glamour magazine: “When someone would do a cheers, we would all cheers and start screaming.”
Tangent #1: The migration of cheers from interjection to verb reminds me of something similar that happened to versus, which begat a new verb, to verse [another person or team], sometime in the early 2000s. Neal Whitman wrote about this development in 2004.
Tangent #2: Why do we clink glasses and say “cheers”? The venerable Farmer’s Almanac explains it all for you. By the way, the English word cheer came from a French word, chiere, that meant “face.” That’s what cheer meant in English, too, for its few hundred years. Language: always languaging.