Who you gonna call?

Dear Word Detective: My husband would like to know where and when it became popular to tell people that they’re “toast.” He and his friends were positive they had invented the term back in high school, but we’re pretty sure that is not the case. — K.

Me too, but I’m not surprised at your husband’s high school belief that he helped invent “You’re toast.” It’s not uncommon for people to believe that they have coined words and phrases, especially slang, when they have, in fact, simply acquired them through social osmosis.

“Toast,” of course, is bread browned by exposure to fire or another heat source, as well as a verb meaning “to brown with heat” or “to heat thoroughly; to burn; to parch,” often by exposure to strong sunlight or hot weather (“The Earth whereof the grass is soon parched with the Sun and toasted,” Francis Bacon, 1626). The source of the noun “toast” was actually the verb “to toast,” which English lifted from the Old French “toster” (to roast or grill), which in turn came from the Latin “tostare,” based on the Latin verb “torrere,” to parch (which is related to the Latin “terra,” meaning dry land as opposed to the sea).

Although just about everything goes better with buttered toast, becoming anything describable with the word “toast” oneself is to be avoided. Since the 19th century “to have someone on toast” has meant that the victim is at one’s mercy or “where one wants him,” completely vulnerable (“Thinking he had got us fairly on toast, he meant to blackmail us pretty freely,” 1895). The underlying metaphor is to a menu item featuring something (sardines, cheese, etc.) served on toast.

This “on toast” idiom is still very much in use, but to describe someone as actually “being toast” is a bit more drastic, conjuring up images of Elmer Fudd standing befuddled, blackened and smoking in the wake of one of Bugs Bunny’s more explosive tricks. If you are “toast,” you’re finished, done for, defunct, ruined and possibly even dead. The phrase first hit the public vernacular in 1985, and I have a one-word explanation for how I can pinpoint its appearance that precisely: Ghostbusters. The wildly popular US film released that year contained the line, spoken by Bill Murray as he prepared to fire his anti-protoplasm gun, “This chick is toast.” According to the remarkable Oxford English Dictionary entry on the term (I love the OED), Murray may have actually ad-libbed the line, as the original script, as written by Murray and co-star Harold Ramis in 1983, read “Okay. That’s it! I’m gonna turn this guy into toast.” (The alteration of gender probably reflects an on-the-fly rewrite of the scene.) So we can thank Bill Murray for “You’re toast.”

“Toast” in this sense took off like a shot in popular culture (“I’m calling my banker in the Caymans and having him read the balance in my account. If it’s not heavier by twenty-five, you’re toast,” Carl Hiassen, 1989) and remains a mainstay of informal speech. Interestingly, Murray’s ad-lib changed the line from a simple statement of future action (“I’m gonna…”) into what linguists call a “proleptic” use that “jumps ahead” to a future state (“You are toast”) as if it were already¬† accomplished. It’s a handy way to make a threat more menacing, and echoes the classic line “You’re a dead man” used in dozens of gangster movies, which is far scarier than a simple “I’m gonna kill you.”

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