A friend of mine had a traveling companion who had a drink of an “adult beverage.” A member of the waitstaff wanted to know if the person was “in their cups.”
I knew what the phrase meant. It means drunk. An example: “When you’re in your cups, foolish ideas have a peculiar tendency of sounding like excellent ones.”
It’s possible I’d heard it, but seriously doubt that I’d ever used the phrase. So I needed to know where it came from. People speculating about its derivation suggested that it probably came from Shakespeare, a good guess, and often correct.
However, The Word Detective states: “‘In his cups’ first appeared (as far as we know) in printed form in [that] sense… in 1611, in, of all places, the then-newly-issued King James Version of the Bible.
OK, so WHERE in the KJV is it? 1 Esdras 3. Verse 22: And when they are in their cups, they forget their love both to friends and brethren, and a little after draw out swords. Verse 23: But when they are from the wine, they remember not what they have done.
This begs a different question, as posed by King James Bible Online. “Why is 1 Esdras shown with the King James Bible?” It’s not in the Bible I grew up with.
The answer: “The Apocrypha is a selection of books that were published in the original 1611 King James Bible. These apocryphal books were positioned between the Old and New Testaments (they also contained maps and genealogies). The Apocrypha was a part of the KJV for 274 years until being removed in 1885 A.D. A portion of these books was called deuterocanonical books by some entities, such as the Catholic church.”
My wife wanted to know the source of “What fresh hell is this?” Once again, Billy Shakes is considered the likely culprit. This time, the source may be much more recent.
Is it Dorothy Parker? She “died in 1967, and her earliest known linkage to the phrase appeared in the 1970 biography ‘You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker’ by John Keats. The book records the testimony of journalist Vincent Sheean who was Parker’s friend:
“‘When it came time to leave the apartment to get a taxi, you could see this look of resolution come on her face,’ he said. ‘Her chin would go up and her shoulders would go back; she would almost be fighting back fear and tears, as if to say to the world, ‘Do your worst; I’ll make it home all right.’ If the doorbell rang in her apartment, she would say, ‘What fresh hell can this be?’—and it wasn’t funny; she meant it.'”
Now it IS possible that Parker may have adopted a pre-existing expression. But it’s almost certain that Parker used the expression often.
One thought on “Not “in their cups””
The 1981 edition of “Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” says the phrase “he was in his cups” is derived from Horace, “Odes” III, vi, 20: “Inter pocula, inter vina”, which Google translates as “between cups, including wine”. I think a fluent Latin speaker would have a better translation 🙂
I enjoy your writings.
(if you should wonder where the “t” is, it’s in Boston Harbor).