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The meaning and origin of the expression: The toast of the town

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The toast of the town

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Meaning

A person who is widely admired.

Origin

As we know, toast is browned bread. People began eating toast, or at least they began writing about it, in the 15th century. The first reference to it in print is in a recipe for a ghastly sounding concoction called Oyle Soppys (flavoured onions stewed in a gallon of stale beer and a pint of oil) that dates from 1430. Toast wasn't part of the recipe as such; the instructions were to serve the oyle soppys as "hote as tostes". Actually, to say that our mediaeval ancestors ate toast isn't quite correct. Like the batter on fried fish and the pastry on Cornish pasties, which were originally just casings that were thrown away, toast was discarded rather than eaten after it was used as a flavouring for drinks. Lodowick Lloyd's text The Pilgrimage of Princes, 1573, describes this:

Alphonsus tooke a toaste out of his cuppe, and cast it to the Dogge.

As well as being a flavouring, toast was used to warm drinks and most of the early citations refer to toast being warm or hot. One of our oldest proverbs, as listed in John Heywood's invaluable  A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue, 1546, gives toast as a synonym for hotness:

Love had appeerd in hym to her alwase Hotte as a toste.

Even as late as the 17th century people didn't eat toast but put it into drinks. Shakespeare gave this line to Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1616:

Go, fetch me a quart of Sacke, put a tost in 't.

[In Shakespeare's day, as now, sack was fortified wine similar to sherry, so a quart seems a generous measure even for the notorious trencherman Sir John Falstaff.]

The toast of the townIt isn't difficult to imagine the scene in which some 18th century culinary innovator, having a piece of toast and a drink served together, decided to eat the toast rather than submerging it. Jonathan Swift appears to be the first to have recorded this novelty in print in the poem Panegyrick on Dean, 1735:

Sweeten your Tea, and watch your Toast.

As to the phrase 'the toast of the town', this came about at the exclusively male drinking clubs of the early 18th century. The 'toast' was the woman who was regarded as the reigning belle of the season. The chaps were invited to flavour and heat their wine with hot spiced toasts and drink to 'the toast of the town'. The English Poet Laureate Colley Cibber wrote about 'toasting' in the comic play Careless Husband, 1705:

Ay, Madam, it has been your Life's whole Pride of late to be the Common Toast of every Publick Table.

Later in the 1700s it became the norm for any celebrated person, male or female, to be applauded by a toast.

Coming more up to date the term toast has taken a 180 degree change of direction. To 'be toast' is now hardly a state to be desired. The usage 'you're toast' = 'you're as good as dead' derives from the 1984 film Ghostbusters. The scriptwriters wrote the line 'I'm gonna turn this guy into toast' but what Bill Murray, in his role as Dr. Peter Venkman, said was "This chick is toast". It is quite likely that the expression was US street slang that was taken up by the Ghostbusters' writers, but the film is what propelled it into the popular consciousness.