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

There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip is a very old proverb, similar in meaning to "don't count your chickens before they hatch". It implies that even when a good outcome or conclusion seems certain, things can still go wrong.


The English proverb is almost identical with a Greek hexameter verse, Πολλὰ μεταξὺ πέλει κύλικος καὶ χείλεος ἄκρου (Much there is between the cup and the tip of the lip). This verse was proverbial at the time of Aulus Gellius (2nd century A.D.), who mentions it in his comment on the Latin phrase inter os atque offam (between the mouth and the morsel) used by Marcus Cato.[1] The Greek verse is attributed to Palladas in The Greek Anthology (X, 32), but that is manifestly erroneous, since Palladas lived two centuries after Aulus Gellius. The Loeb Classical Library edition of the Anthology says that the verse is "a very ancient proverb, by some attributed to Homer".[2] There is a reference to the many things that can intervene between cup and lip already in an iambic verse by Lycophron (3rd century B.C.) quoted by Erasmus.[3][4]

According to a story about the proverb, the verse was a comment by a seer who told Ancaeus, who was setting out on the perilous enterprise of the Argonauts, that he would never taste wine from his newly planted vineyard. On his safe return, Ancaeus filled a cup with the first wine from his vineyard and reproached the seer for what appeared to be a false prophecy. The seer responded with the verse and just then an alarm was raised that a wild boar was destroying the vineyard. Without tasting the wine, Ancaeus rushed out and was killed by the boar. Hence, the prophecy came to be true.[5][6][7]

The proverb may have been inspired by a situation described, without the proverbial phrase, in Homer's Odyssey, Book xxii 8-18 (from c. 850 B.C.), where Odysseus kills Antinous, who "was on the point of raising to his lips a fair goblet, a two-eared cup of gold, and was even now handling it, that he might drink of the wine, and death was not in his thoughts".[8][9]


As mentioned above, Aulus Gellius considered the phrase inter os atque offam to be a Latin equivalent of the Greek proverb. Other equivalents or citations have been discerned in one of Cicero's Ad Atticum letters in 51 B.C. and in the anonymous 13th-century French work De l'oue au chapelain,[9] There is a slight similarity between the wording of the proverb and that of an unattributed Greek iambic trimeter verse quoted by Cicero in a letter to Atticus, but this refers to the geographical distance between Cicero and his correspondent.[10]

Erasmus's 1523 Adagia, in which he translated the Greek verse proverb into Latin verse as Multa cadunt inter calicem supremaque labra[3][4] was the basis of translations into many languages. An English translation by Taverner in 1539 rendered the proverb as "Many thynges fall betwene the cuppe and the mouth ... Betwene the cuppe and the lyppes maye come many casualties".[11]

The proverb appears in English also in William Lambarde's A Perambulation of Kent in 1576: "[M]any things happen (according to the proverbe) betweene the Cup and the Lippe".[12] 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 the bourde and the bed" in Petite Palace.[9] The version "manye thinges fall betweene the cup and the lippe" appears in 1580 in John Lyly's Euphues and His England.[13] In Ben Jonson's play, A Tale of a Tub (1633) Erasmus's text is explicitly quoted and expanded: "Multa cadunt inter—you can ghesse the rest. /Many things fall betweene the cup, and lip: /And though they touch, you are not sure to drinke."[14]


  • The Macmillan Book of Proverbs says Miguel de Cervantes referenced the proverb in Don Quixote in 1605.[9] However, although some English translations use the proverb,[15] what is in the original text is a different, though similar, proverb: "Del dicho al hecho hay gran trecho" (More easily said than done).[16]
  • In English, "many things happen between the cup and the lip" is first found in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621-1651).[17]
  • 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.[9]
  • The proverb also appears 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."[18]

    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."[19]
  • It was used as well in William Makepeace Thackeray's Pendennis in 1850.[20]
  • The phrase appears numerous times in the Chronicles of Barsetshire series (1855-1867) by Anthony Trollope, especially in connection with the engagement of Lily Dale to Adolphus Crosbie in The Small House at Allington and the engagement of Grace Crawley to Major Grantly in The Last Chronicle of Barset.
  • A played version of the phrase is also attributed to W.V.O. Quine: There is many a slip betwixt subjective cup and objective lip.[21]
  • "The Cup and the Lip" is the title of the First Book (of four books) of Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens 1864-65

In popular cultureEdit

  • The American pop group The Present recorded a song called "Many's the Slip Twixt the Cup and the Lip (or Baby the World Really Turns)" in 1967. The song, written by George Fischoff and Tony Powers, was released as a single on the Philips label but failed to chart. It was also used by Emilio Estevez as Billy the Kid in the movie Young Guns.


  1. ^ Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae 13:18
  2. ^ The Greek Anthology with an English translation by W.H Paton, vol. IV, p. 21
  3. ^ a b Chiliadis Primae Centuria V
  4. ^ a b Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami Opera Omnia, vol. 2, p. 181
  5. ^ Jennifer R. March, Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Oxbow Books 2014)
  6. ^ Ancaeus (son of Poseidon)
  7. ^ Titelman, Gregory (1996) Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings. New York: Random House. ISBN 0679445544
  8. ^ Homer, Odyssey, 22:9−12
  9. ^ a b c d e Stevenson, Burton. (1948) The Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Famous Phrases, New York: Macmillan. pp.2139-40
  10. ^ Cicero, Ad Atticum, 6.3
  11. ^ Jennifer Speake, Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (Oxford University Press 2015), p. 202
  12. ^ 1826 printing, page 422
  13. ^ John Lyly, Euphues and His England, chapter "Euphues to Philautos", p. 471 in Edward Arber's printing of the editio princeps
  14. ^ Act III, Scene VII
  15. ^ Don Quixote, 308
  16. ^ El Ingenios Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, segunda parte
  17. ^ Bartlett, John (1992) Familiar Quotations (16th ed.) Kaplan, Justin (gen. ed.) Boston: Little, Brown. p.235. ISBN 0-316-08277-5
  18. ^ 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
  19. ^ 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
  20. ^ Oxford Dictionaries (2008) Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th ed.) New York:Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199548412
  21. ^ Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy by Avrum Stroll, p. 181. see: