Q: We were driving in Arizona when disaster struck. The engine of our classic Porsche 356 (a k a Holly) blew up. No injuries to us but Holly’s engine was toast! Which brings us to our question: Have you done research on this use of “toast”?
A: Yikes! Good luck finding a new engine. The 356 is a real classic, Porsche’s first production automobile.
As for your question, we probably have the actor Bill Murray to thank for phrases like “You’re toast” or “Oh no, we’re toast!”
When the movie Ghostbusters (1984) was filmed, Murray slightly altered the wording of the script, which was written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis.
Playing the role of the ghostbusting parapsychologist Dr. Peter Venkman, Murray delivers the line as he’s preparing to fire his laser-like weapon at an androgynous apparition.
The line as written: “I’m gonna turn this guy into toast.”
The line as ad-libbed by Murray: “All right, this chick is toast.”
All this is explained in a note in the Oxford English Dictionary, which says the use of “toast” to mean “a person or thing that is defunct, dead, finished, in serious trouble, etc.,” originated with the movie.
“A considerable amount of the dialogue is ad-libbed,” the OED says, and Murray’s “toast” ad-lib is probably responsible for “the proleptic construction which has gained particular currency.”
A “proleptic” construction refers to something that hasn’t happened yet. For example, a talkative hit man, before pulling the trigger, says, “You’re history.” Or, an angry teen-ager, before storming away, says, “I’m out of here.”
In our opinion, Murray’s alteration made all the difference. There’s a huge semantic gulf between “I’m gonna turn you into toast” and “You’re toast.”
The OED’s next example of “toast” used in Murray’s sense of the word is from a quotation in the Omaha World-Herald (1985): “Shake, Fedya … because you’re toast!”
Carl Hiaasen wrote in his novel Skin Tight (1989): “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.”
And the 1994 script for the movie Clueless, written by Amy Heckerling, has another example: “You get your report card?” … “Yeah, I’m toast, you’ll never see me out of the house again.”
The OED also has a pair of “toast” citations that we might call “non-proleptic,” merely meaning that someone or something is … well … history.
In this kind of usage the damage isn’t merely anticipated—it’s already done (like what happened to your car).
Here’s an example from a 1991 issue of Sports Illustrated: “Soon their relationship was toast.”
And here’s the other, from a 2002 article in Mojo, a British music magazine: “Brian at that time was basically a hermit and, to put it mildly, toast.”
[Update: For more on Bill Murray and the “toast” quote, see our later post.]
Check out our books about the English language