When you think of the word “tradition,” many things come to mind. It could refer to a special event or custom, like how we celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States, or something more specific like the Greek traditions of family members pulling your ear when it’s your “Name Day” (your Saint’s Day. So, since I’m Nicole, my name day is on December 6 for Saint Nicholas). However, traditions can also include the small habits that a particular culture has that make it different and distinct from other cultures, such as different greetings. In Spain, you greet someone by kissing them once on each cheek, but if you kiss them three times total, that lets your friend know you’re single. I’ll be focusing more on some quirky, sometimes unnoticed traditions in Britain.
“Cheers!” What does that phrase mean to you? Is it something you say when you are celebrating someone at a fancy dinner, followed by clinking your glasses together? Is it a greeting to say hello? This is a very British phrase that has both of those meanings and more. It’s not a tradition that I learned about through a special event, but something I have noticed in my everyday life as I interact with friends or even strangers on public transportation.
Why does the community have this tradition?
Now here is where I’ll admit that I don’t know the origin of the phrase “Cheers.” I feel like it’s something that has developed throughout the years, just like how the word “muggle” didn’t mean anything before J.K. Rowling created the word in Harry Potter. From my experience, phrase is used so often because it can mean such a variety of things, and it’s an easy one word expression to convey something much more complex. For example, when someone holds the door open for you, you don’t respond, “I appreciate that you held the door open for me even though you didn’t have to wait for me to walk through the door.” Instead, you just say “thank you.” But when you say “thank you,” the other person understands that you’re basically saying the more complex sentence (“I appreciate that…..etc.”).
At this point I may have thoroughly confused you. So let me conclude with a few examples. My apartment has a shared kitchen. I’m friends with all of my apartment-mates (flatmates), so when we walk into the kitchen and see someone else is there, we greet them and chat a little bit. One time I was rushing into the kitchen to fill up my water bottle before my lecture. Two of my flatmates were there drinking tea. They asked how I was doing and where I was off to, and I let them know I was rushing off to my next lecture. I said, “Have a good day!” as I was exiting the kitchen, and one of my flatmates responded by saying, “Cheers!”
Now, what did “Cheers” mean in that case? There’s no one right answer. To me, it meant “Good luck with your lecture,” but also “Goodbye!” and “Have a nice day!” It was just one word, but I understood three different meanings. That is why words like “Cheers” exist. We can communicate so much, so quickly, with one word.
The tradition is highly connected to the environment. Typically you don’t speak to strangers, whether passing by people on the sidewalk or sitting next to them on public transportation. However, if someone gets up from their seat on a bus so you can sit down, or makes room in the subway so you can squeeze in before the doors shut, then you traditionally acknowledge them with the word “Cheers!” So this phrase is an accepted way of communicating and speaking to strangers that it’s otherwise unacceptable for you to be chatting with.
It’s also a unifying phrase. Just as the American flag is a symbol of the United States, and brings us together as a nation, “cheers” is a distinctly British word, and it provides a way of expressing that culture with others and identifying those who are part of your community. For example, the fact that I don’t use the word “cheers” tells those around me that I’m a foreigner.
Congratulations, you made it through this highly complicated post! All that I want you to take away is that simple phrases like “Cheers” can have dozens of meanings, but the fact that it’s only used in Britain (and some of its former colonies) makes it an everyday tradition.