Better call Julie.
When my Parisian friends asked me to be a guest at their wedding, I thought I’d better brush up on some of the unfamiliar customs.
I needed to get the inside scoop on French culture, which meant a visit to my friend Julie L’Enfant.
I knocked at Julie’s front door. “C’est moi, Julie,” I called. “Julie, it’s me. I’m here to learn all about toasting in French.”
The door opened. “Yes, yes—do come in, ma petite.” Julie always calls me “my little one.” After all, she’s a good head taller than I am.
She ran a hand through her curly red hair. “I was just getting the eggs and the bread out.”
“Eggs and bread? I don’t understand.”
“For the toast, of course!” Julie chuckled, shaking her head at my befuddlement. Her blue eyes sparkled in merriment. “From what you told me on the phone, you need to know how to make a pain perdu, a ‘lost bread.’ You call it… French toast?
(Can you guess where the confusion happened yet?)
“I don’t know why you call it that, really,” Julie went on. “We French didn’t invent it.”
“Well, Julie, I actually didn’t mean pain perdu. I’m going to France in a couple of weeks and my friends invited me to their wedding. I wanted to know how to make a toast in French—not how to make French toast!”
We both had a good laugh over that. Once we got settled in the kitchen, Julie decided to make the French toast anyway—she’d gotten a taste for it. As she whisked the eggs and then dipped the bread, she told me all about making a toast in French… everything from how to say “Cheers!” to the proper etiquette for toasting.
She even threw in a little history for good measure and warned me about a couple of faux pas to avoid.
Here’s what she told me.
The Importance of Toasting Like the Locals
Making a toast seems like a simple thing. We do it all the time in the English-speaking world. How difficult can it be to translate to French?
The truth is, toasting in the French tradition has its own customs and rules. There’s more to it than just learning the French word for “cheers.”
- Decant the dialogue: There are different words for formal and informal toasts, and various ways you can drink to someone or something. Since toasting is a custom often enjoyed among friends, colleagues, new acquaintances and more, you’ll want to use the proper expressions when making a toast or participating in one.
- Drink in culture and history: Learning about toasting customs shows respect for French culture. Enrich your understanding of la vie française (the French life) as you discover more about the history behind these drinking rituals.
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French Toast: How to Say “Cheers” in French Like a Native
Let’s look at the various ways you can make a toast in French.
How to Say “Cheers” in Different Situations
Make a Formal Proposal
If you’re at a formal occasion, such as a wedding or a dinner party, you might want to drink a toast to your hosts or to the guests of honor.
The proper French term for making a toast (albeit with a loan from English) is porter un toast. If you’d like your fellow guests to drink with you, you can say, “Portons un toast.” (“Let’s make/drink a toast.”)
The toast we drink to the bride and groom at a wedding is called le toast porté aux mariés.
An alternative to porter un toast is lever nos verres (to raise our glasses). You might lift your wine glass and suggest, “Levons nos verres aux mariés.” (“Let’s raise our glasses to the newlyweds.”)
Or, if you’re at a formal gathering for le Quatorze juillet (July 14th, or Bastille Day), you might say, “Je lève mon verre à la liberté.” (I raise my glass to freedom.)
Drink to Your Health
Of course, not all toasts are made for special occasions. À votre santé (To your health, plural/formal) is used commonly as a generic toast. If you’re only drinking with one other person and it’s someone you know well, you’d probably use the singular informal version, À ta santé.
However, don’t fret too much over whether to use à votre santé or à ta santé. It’s very common to just use santé (health) all by itself as a toast. It’s a safe option for both formal and informal contexts.
There’s another twist to the popular à votre santé toasting formula: informal French toasts often drop the word santé (health) and just use à la nôtre (to ours) or à la vôtre (to yours). In this context, the word “health” is just assumed.
Again, if you’re toasting a good friend one-on-one, you’d say, À la tienne (to your [health], singular informal).
A playful way to toast one your friends is, “À la tienne, Étienne.” It literally means, “To your health, Stephen,” but you can use it regardless of your friend’s name. It’s just a bit of silliness—something like saying, “Okie dokie, Smokey,” in English.
You may’ve heard some films and TV programs from outside of France show French people saying Salut when they toast—which is incorrect. Salut means “Hello,” not “Health.”
It’s possible that the confusion comes from the common use of Salud (Health) as a toast in Spanish-speaking countries, and Salute (Health) as a toast in Italy.
Stick to Santé, and you’ll maintain the healthy respect of your amis français (French friends).
Clink and Clank While You Trinque
If you’re out for a celebratory lunch or a night on the town with close friends and you want to raise your glass to good times, you wouldn’t say portons un toast (let’s make a toast)—it’s far too formal.
Here’s where the word trinquer comes into play.
Trinquer, which comes from the German word trinken (to drink), has more than one meaning.
It can be used to propose a toast. If you’re feeling festive while at a bar with your buddies, you can say, On trinque? (Shall we toast?)
Trinquer also means to make the glasses clink together.
If you want to propose an informal toast, you can use the formulation trinquer à quelqu’un ou quelque chose (to drink to/toast someone or something). For example, “Je trinque à ma sœur et mon beau-frère,” (“I drink to my sister and my brother-in-law,”) or “Trinquons à votre nouvelle maison.” (“Let’s drink to your new house.”)
Don’t worry if you’re already a little tipsy when you make your toast. Conjugating trinquer is straightforward, since it’s a regular -er verb. If you have a basic command of French, you won’t need too much concentration to get the conjugation right. (And if your friends have also been imbibing, they may not notice if you use the wrong verb form.)
Someone who enjoys toasting and drinking in the company of others can be called un trinqueur (masculine) or une trinqueuse (feminine).
Take It on the Tchin-tchin
In casual company, you can certainly say Santé or À la vôtre. But another popular toast used among friends is tchin-tchin. It’s pronounced like “Chin-Chin” would be in English.
Brought back from the Second Opium War by returning French soldiers, tchin-tchin comes from the Chinese phrase qǐng qǐng, which is the word “please” said twice in a row. (In this context, it’s used to encourage someone to have a drink.)
Italian has the same expression, only it’s spelled cin cin.
French Toasting Traditions and Superstitions
Since you now have a command of basic French toasting vocabulary, we’ll take a look at some of the traditions the French follow when they clink glasses.
Look Before You Sip
Don’t be tempted to sample the libations the minute your glass has been filled. Once someone has called for a toast, there are rules to be observed.
Take a look around and make sure everyone’s glass is full before you lift yours for the toast. Then, raise your stemware, snifter or tumbler a few inches in front of your face and wait patiently for the spoken part of the toast to be completed.
Once the spoken part of the toast has been made, there’s still another propriety to be observed: make sure you clink glasses with everyone in the group, and intone a cheerful, Santé! (Health), À la vôtre (To your [health]) or Tchin-tchin as you do so. (As noted earlier, tchin-tchin is used in more informal company.)
How the French Fill (and Empty) the Glass
The contents of the toasting glasses are nearly as important as the toasting words and rituals.
The first rule is to not toast with water, juice or anything else non-alcoholic. Toasting with water was what the ancient Greeks did to salute the souls on their way to the River Lethe… thus, toasting with water is associated with death and may even be akin to wishing death upon your fellow toasters.
Some speculate that people avoid toasting with water because, in the Middle Ages, water was often considered unsafe to drink. However, Medieval scholars show that this theory doesn’t really… well… hold water.
The glass should also only be filled about half-way, so the wine can breathe. Among other advantages, a half-full glass oxygenates the wine and concentrates the wine’s vapors for olfactory delectation.
Don’t hesitate to drink the bottom dry. If you’re toasting with hard liquor, you may hear the expression cul sec (dry bottom). Used like “Bottoms up,” cul sec exhorts you to drink ‘til the glass is empty—in a single shot, if possible.
Some French people believe there are dire consequences to breaking a few of these toasting taboos, so be sure to observe these points of etiquette.
When delivering a toast, make sure you acknowledge or include the whole group. Whether you’re the host or one of the guests, you don’t want anyone to feel left out of the convivial custom.
Another note if you’re hosting: even if you’re serving vin de glace (ice wine, made from grapes harvested in winter), adding ice cubes to the wine in toasting glasses won’t win you any friends. That’s because the ice eventually melts, diluting the product of the vintner’s art.
Keep your glass lifted throughout your toast as well. At the end of the toasting speech, continue to keep it raised while all the glasses (including yours) are clinked together. Make sure you take your first sip before setting it down.
Bad luck will supposedly follow if you don’t make eye contact while clinking glasses, so be sure to keep les yeux dans les yeux (eye-to-eye, face-to-face). You also don’t want to cross arms while you’re reaching to clink glasses. (This is probably to avoid jostling glasses and spilling wine!)
These are both especially important taboos not to break. Ignoring these can lead to a particularly personal kind of bad luck: the curse of seven years of bad sex.
Several other countries, including Spain, Italy and Germany, share many of these superstitions about toasting.
Life is full of good times and special occasions. Enjoy raising your glass and toasting to them à la manière française (in the French way).
À votre bonne santé, cher lecteur! (To your good health, dear reader!)
And one more thing…
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