There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip

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There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip is a very old proverb. It implies that even when the outcome of an event seems certain, things can still go wrong.

One theory is that the proverb derives from a Greek legend in which Ancaeus, one of the Argonauts, returns home to his winery. A local soothsayer had previously predicted the he would die before he tasted another drop of his wine, thus the Argonaut calls the soothsayer and toasts him for the Argonaut had survived his journey. The soothsayer replies to the toast with a phrase corresponding to the English proverb. As he finishes his toast, the Argonaut raises a cup filled with wine to his lips but is called away to hunt a wild boar before he could take a sip. The Argonaut is killed hunting the boar.[1] However, Burton Stevenson, the compiler of the authoritative The Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Famous Phrases expresses the opinion that it derives instead from Homer's Odyssey, Book xxii, II. 8-18, which dates from c.850 B.C..[2]

Versions subsequently occur in works by Marcus Canto in c.175 B.C., Cicero's Ad Atticum in 51 B.C., an unknown French author in De l'Oue ou Ahapelein in c.1250, and Erasmus's "Adagia," I.iv.1 ("Multa cadunt inter calicem supremaque labra") in 1523,[2] which appears to derive from an epigram by Palladas in The Greek Anthology (X, 32).

The first appearance in English may have been in William Lambarde's A Perambulation of Kent in 1576: "Many things happen (according to the proverbs) between the cup and the lippe." In the same year, George Pettie added to it: "Many things (as the saying is) happens betweene the cup and the lip, many thinges chaunce betweene betweene the bourde and the bed" in Petite Palace. The version "Many things fall between the the cut and the lippe" appears in 1580 in John Lyly's Euphues: The Anatomy of Wyt, and subsequently in numerous other works, including Ben Jonson's play, A Tale of a Tub (1633).[2] Jonson expanded it to: "Many things fall betweene the cup, and lip: And though they touch, you are not sure to drinke." (Act III, Scene VII)

The proverb is referenced in Don Quixote by Cervantes in 1605.[2]

"Many things happen between the cup and the lip" is first found in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621-1651).[3]

A close approximation of the current version, "There is many a slip 'tween the cup and the lip", appears in 1824 in D. M. Moir's Mansie Waugh, while the first appearance of the modern version comes in 1840 in R. H. Barham's The Ingoldsby Legends: Lady Rohesia.[2]

The proverb also appears up in Catharine Maria Sedgwick's The Linwoods: or, "Sixty Years Since" in America in 1835.

While a group of banditti ransack Mrs. Archer's house, the leader, Sam Hewson, drops a bottle of brandy; after it shatters, he says, "Ah, my men! there's a sign for us – we may have a worse slip than that 'tween the cup and the lip: so let's be off – come, Pat."[4]

Later in the novel, the narrator recounts, "That 'there is many a slip between the cup and the lip' is a proverb somewhat musty; but it pithily indicates the sudden mutations to which poor humanity is liable."[5]

It was used as well in William Makepeace Thackeray's Pendennis in 1850.[6]

In popular culture[edit]

  • In the 1988 film Young Guns, Billy the Kid, played by Emilio Estevez, tells his band of outlaws in response to their concern of potential hanging, that if they are caught that they will most certainly get hanged, and then utters the phrase but "There's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip".
  • In an early episode of Aaron Sorkin's The West Wing, the character of Donna Moss, played by Janel Moloney, misquotes the expression, saying "There's many a slip 'twixt the tongue and the wrist, Josh."[7]


  1. ^ Titelman, Gregory (1996) Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings. New York: Random House. ISBN 0679445544
  2. ^ a b c d e Stevenson, Burton. (1948) The Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Famous Phrases, New York: Macmillan. pp.2139-40
  3. ^ Bartlett, John (1992) Familiar Quotations (16th ed.) Kaplan, Justin (gen. ed.) Boston: Little, Brown. p.235. ISBN 0-316-08277-5
  4. ^ Sedgwick, Catherine Maria (2002) [1835] The Linwoods: or "Sixty Years Since" in America, Maria Karafilis (ed.) Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, p.167 ISBN 1584651539
  5. ^ Sedgwick, Catherine Maria (2002) [1835] The Linwoods: or "Sixty Years Since" in America, Maria Karafilis (ed.) Lebanon, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, p.260 ISBN 1584651539
  6. ^ Oxford Dictionaries (2008) Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th ed.) New York:Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199548412
  7. ^ West Wing transcripts