Laughing at the carpet.
Dear Word Detective: I was wondering if you could elaborate on the origin of the phrase “in his cups” to describe someone who is inebriated. I first ran across a reference to this phrase while reading a book on the mutineers of the Bounty and their exploits on Pitcairn Island. I have tripped upon it a few times since, also in period books. Perhaps it dates to the 18th century. — Shayne Stankov.
It was the 17th century, but close enough for government work, as they say. “In his cups” first appeared (as far as we know) in printed form in the sense you mention in 1611, in, of all places, the then-newly-issued King James Version of the Bible (“And when they are in their cups, they forget their love both to friends and brethren”). There are actually two meanings to the phrase “in his cups” (which can be rendered, of course, just as well with “her,” “their,” or, in case one encounters a drunken robot, “its”). “In one’s cups” can mean, as you say, inebriated (i.e., drunk as a skunk), but it can also mean merely to be engaged in drinking alcoholic beverages, an endeavor which will not necessarily culminate in drooling on parking meters. This sense appears a bit earlier than the “stinking drunk” sense.
The “cup” in “in one’s cups” is, of course, the cup, mug or glass from which the liquor or beer is imbibed. “Cup” itself is a very old word, first appearing in Old English as “cuppe,” drawn from the Latin “cuppa,” itself based on “cupa,” which in Latin meant “tub.” Cups have been around pretty much since humans started drinking anything, and crop up in a number of idioms and catch phrases, the most popular of which is probably “cup of tea” meaning a person or thing regarded favorably or, more often, unfavorably (“Miss Prentice … seems to be a very unpleasant cup of tea,” 1939), a usage dating to the early 20th century.
As a euphemism for being sloshed, “in one’s cups” is actually one of the more diplomatic phrases we’ve come up with over the centuries. In his recent book “Drunk: The Definitive Drinker’s Dictionary (Melville House, 2009), lexicographer Paul Dickson has collected more than 3,000 terms for being “whiskey frisky,” breaking the Guinness World Record for such a list (which he himself had set several years earlier). Compiling such lists has a distinguished history. Among the first lists was one of 228 terms compiled by Benjamin Franklin, and Tom Paine, Ambrose Bierce and H.L. Mencken all took a shot at corralling the lexicon of lushitude.
Almost as interesting as the terms themselves in Dickson’s collection are the reasons he suggests for mankind’s apparently insatiable thirst to coin synonyms for “drunk.” First, the state itself invites mockery from observers, he notes, with its corollaries of slurred speech and disheveled demeanor. Thus we get such creations as “floopy,” “hammered” and “laughing at the carpet.” From the drinker’s point of view, however, euphemisms are needed; thus such neutral creations as “in his cups.” Thirdly, Dickson suggests, the more oblique code phrases, such as “tired and emotional” (applied in Britain to public figures spotted in an unsteady state), arose to sidestep strict libel laws. And lastly, Dickson notes the observation of the late Stuart Berg Flexner that people drink for a wide range of reasons and manifest drunkenness in a multitude of ways, a range which demands and produces great variety in descriptive terms. Thus a “roaring drunk” is quite a different creature than the guy getting quietly “soused” at the far end of the bar, and there are, no doubt, more terms being coined in dives around the world right now.