If, before October, you were to say “cheers” to me, I’d automatically think of a few things. The place where everybody knows your name and Sam Malone tends bar would come to mind first. Or maybe I would think that you were toasting or something. Heck, you might even be one of those people who sign their emails with “Cheers!” But in England, “cheers” isn’t any of these things: I dare say “cheers” is cultural institution.
Here “cheers” is roughly equivalent to “aloha” or “shalom” in that it’s a word that means different things in different contexts. In the same way that you expect to go to Hawaii and hear people say aloha or expect to hear shalom in Israel for a truly “authentic” cultural experience,Â England isn’t complete without “cheers.” For the most part, it means “thanks.” But it doesn’t just mean “thanks.” Let me elaborate with a short one-act play.
Dramatis Personae: Scott, bus driver, cute couple
[Scott gets on the bus]
Scott: One way to City Centre.
Bus Driver: 80 pence.
[Scott hands one-pound coin to bus driver.]
Bus Driver: Cheers.
[Bus driver takes one-pound coin, gives Scott 20 pence coin in return.]
Bus Driver: Cheers.
[Scott sits down. Enter cute couple. Scott gets up offering his seat to cute couple (I am
a nice guy, after all).]
Male of cute couple: Cheers.
Scott: Cheers.Female of cute couple:Cheers. [Bus reaches City Centre. Scott gets ready to exit bus. Cute couple gets up before him, Scott sees them getting up and moves over.]
Cute couple (in unison): Cheers.
Scott (in reply): Cheers. [Scott gets off bus, before doing so, turns to bus driver.] Scott: Cheers.
Bus Driver: Cheers. [Exeunt Scott, cute couple. Curtain closes.]
This, my friends, is meaningful interaction, English style. At home, I would have responded in some of those situations with “thanks,” to some with “you’re welcome.” I might even have thrown in a “you bet,” or “no problem.” Let’s be honest, I might have said to the cute couple: “Why are you with that guy?” But in England, interaction of that sort doesn’t occur. “Cheers” is ready-at-hand. “Cheers” is what they say.
A note on pronunciation: Before coming here, I would say “cheers” by making the “eers” sound like “ears.” Try it yourself right now. You see. But, in England, the pronunciation is a bit different. “Cheers” becomes little more than a grunt.Â Sorta like “chrs” and then you cough.
The coughing part is important for some reason. You rarely have the “cheers” without the cough, or at least a deep clearing of the throat. It might have to do with the fact that people have colds a lot of the time, on account of the rain, of course.
The thing is that I’ve started to say it regularly (I omit the cough). On the bus, at the pub, at the post office, today while purchasing the new Oasis album at HMV (there might be more on that in a later column). Cheers, Cheers, Cheers. It’s more ubiquitous than the rain and Abba Gold. I’ve stopped saying “thanks,” “cool,” or “awesome.” Now I say “cheers.” I’m not the only American who does it either. And I don’t say it with some affected British accent so that it sounds “authentic.”
I say “cheers” unabashedly with my ‘American’ accent.Â Besides my pronunciation, I think the lack of phlegm gives away the fact that I’m from America. But, hey, nobody seems to mind. These British people: I go to their bops, and now I’m adopting their jargon.