The Grammarphobia Blog

Is our posting toast?

Q: I have a question about your posting that Bill Murray introduced the expression “you’re toast” in Ghostbusters (one of my favorite films). It’s not for me to dispute your source, but I wonder how thorough the OED is in its monitoring of American slang. I’m certain I heard the phrase long before the 1984 movie.

A: We said in our posting that Bill Murray is responsible for phrases like “you’re toast,” but what he actually said in the film was “All right, this chick is toast.”

Never mind. You make a good point. From the available evidence, we have Murray to thank for the usage. But with the digitalization of almost everything, earlier examples may eventually come to light.

And now that the Oxford English Dictionary is online and constantly updated, we’re sure that it will be on the case.

The lexicographers at the OED do indeed monitor American slang, though in the early days slang in general wasn’t given nearly the attention—or respect—that it now enjoys at the dictionary.

Of course not all slang locutions make it into the OED, only those that its lexicographers think are likely to last.

Slang dictionaries are another matter. The lexicographers who compile them watch street language very closely, and they record even passing obscurities. Permanence isn’t an issue.

We checked the huge three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang (which only recently came out) and here’s what we found.

The adjective “toast,” meaning “facing serious problems; esp. in phr. you’re toast,” is credited to the film script of Ghostbusters by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis.

This we know to be untrue. As we say in our posting, the phrase wasn’t in the script as written by Aykroyd and Ramis. Green’s should have credited Bill Murray’s ad-lib during the filming (which the OED does).

Green’s also credits the journal Campus Slang, edited by Connie Able, as reporting that the phrase showed up on college campuses in 1986—two years after the film.

We did several searches in the Google and NewsBank archives, but the earliest examples we found of “you’re toast” used in this sense were from 1987.

One more comment. Green’s is full of other, different slang uses of “toast.”

In 1984, for example, Campus Slang reported that the phrase “bad as toast” meant amazingly good or shocking. And as far back as 1971 “toast” was used adjectivally to mean excellent.

What’s more, a reader has written to us to point out that T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (1958) has an even earlier reference: “ ‘You run a grave risk, my boy, said the magician, ‘of being turned into a piece of bread, and toasted.’ ”

But those are worlds away from the meaning we’re talking about.

Check out our books about the English language