‘No, Really, How ARE You?’

Here’s to your health!

Toasting, selective focus, canon 1Ds mark III

Around the  world, conventional greetings and farewells normally include wishes for good health, and often imply that health and all good things come from above. Today, few people know that the word “goodbye” is a shortened form of “God be with ye”, from Elizabethan times. This connection is more easy to see in countries whose language is based on Latin – Adio, Adios, Adeus, Adieu (‘to God”) in Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, respectively – because Roman Catholicism greatly influenced those languages. That’s not to suggest that leave-taking in those places expresses any more conscious religious feelings today than Goodbye does for English speakers; these  expressions are all conventional formalities.

“Hello. How are you?” has no obvious connection to a loving thought, let alone anything spiritual, but it does help maintain the conventions of polite society – something that’s getting rarer.  The expected answer to “How are you?” is “Fine, thank you” – implying that the question is a kindness.  Maybe it was at some time. But a serious or honest answer is not expected. And changing the usual pattern would be the mark of someone who is either a stranger to the language, or is trying to be rude. Suppose you greeted a casual acquaintance, “Hello. How are you?” and she answered, “Why do you ask! Do you really want to know?” That’s not an appropriate response. Your reaction would be negative – discomfort, embarrassment, or annoyance. Asking seriously after a person’s well-being assumes some intimacy, and the right setting.


Openly religious societies do still name God directly in their greetings and farewells. In Islam, “I’ll see you later” is answered with “If God wills it”, and “How are you?” brings “Thanks be to God!” Fundamentalist Christians may insert a ‘”God bless you” into any greeting or conversation. But in mainstream America, “Thank God” seldom has any religious meaning.

It isn’t only greetings and farewells that involve wishes for health, and often references to the spirit world too. From the beginning of civilization, speech in all kind of ceremonies, celebrations and social get-togethers has included thanks to the gods for their good gifts, and invoked their blessings on the group’s activities, be they hunting or crop growing, seeking fertility and health, or fighting enemies. Considering how serious and vital these rituals of gratitude are, it seems strange that most of them also include strong drinks, and mind-altering substances. The drinks – libations – are not only offered to the gods; they are imbibed by the participants too. This has continued from the dawn of civilization into modern times, perhaps with gradually less attention to the libations and more to the imbibing.

“Libation” means ‘pouring out’. Being a gift to (and from) the gods, something considered particularly vital or pleasing must be chosen, including blood or milk or even water; but in most of the world libations have been alcoholic, and still are. This is surely because alcohol can  bring so much enjoyment, and has been highly valued in all civilizations. The earliest evidence of its use is the production of rice wine in China, 9000 years ago! (See the recent National Geographic article by Andrew Curry, “Our 9,000-Year Love Affair with Booze“.) Continue reading “‘No, Really, How ARE You?’”