“When Wine Sinks, Words Swim”

Here I attempt to trace back the origins of the quotation “When wine sinks, words swim.” Was it Tomyris, Herodotus, Erasmus, Ray, the Scots, the English? Or a centuries-long whittling and amalgamation? Read on. And thanks to Bob for the inspiration to do this research! –Terri

Cyrus, the blood-thirsty! be not elated by this present event, since it was by the fruit of the vine, with which you surfeit yourselves, and become so insane, that as it sinks into your bodies, insulting words float upon your tongues. ~Queen Tomyris (500s BC), to Cyrus II of Persia, via herald, recorded by Herodotus of Halicarnassus (400s BC), translated literally into English prose from the text of Baeher by Henry Owgan, 1850  [Other 19th century translations, by Laurent and Johnson, give us: “it was the juice of the grape which being filled with, you rave so as to belch forth vile words upon yourselves, when it sinks down into the body.” –tg]

In Wine there’s Truth… A well-hammered proverb. Herodotus: “As the wine sinks down, words swim atop.” ~Desiderius Erasmus (1460s–1536), translated by Nathan Bailey, 1733  [in vino veritas –tg]

When the wine is in the words flow out. ~Herodotus, as quoted in Hugh Percy Jones, “Greek,” New Dictionary of Foreign Phrases and Classical Quotations, 1900  [I thought I had also seen the wording “when wine sinks down, words swim up” somewhere along my wine proverb researches, but because I can’t find it anywhere now I think it’s actually something I got twisted up in my own mind. Could certainly be an alternative translation, though. –tg]

What soberness conceals drunkenness reveales… Erasmus cites to this purpose a sentence out of Herodotus, When wine sinks, words swim. ~John Ray, A Collection of English Proverbs, Whereunto are added Local Proverbs with their Explications, Old Proverbial Rhythmes, Less known or Exotick Proverbial Sentences, and Scottish Proverbs, 1670

When Wine sinks Words swim. ~Scottish proverb, in A Complete Collection of Scotish Proverbs Explained and made Intelligible to the English Reader, by James Kelly, 1721  [The great paremiologist Wolfgang Mieder lists this as English in World Proverbs, 1986. –tg]

When Wine sinks, Words swim. ~Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British, collected by Thomas Fuller, 1732

When wine sinks, words soom. ~Scottish Proverbs, collected and arranged by Andrew Henderson, 1832  [To soom, or soume, is to swim. Per John Jamieson’s Dictionary of the Scottish Language. –tg]

The French say, “Lorsque le vin descend, les paroles remontent” (When wine goes down, words come up). ~Burton Stevenson, The Home Book of Quotations, 1948

Excessive loquacity is one of the first and most noticeable manifestations of vinous activity, therefore we are not surprised at the many references in proverbial literature to the intimate connection of tipple and talk… hence the opinion, dating from the very ancient times, that under the excitement of wine the natural character is disclosed. “When wine sinks, words swim” is a maxim at least as old as Herodotus. ~“Proverbs and Epigrams on Wine and Water,” Meliora, Vol. 9, No. 34, 1866

Democritus said — Truth lay buried low
Down in a well, whose opening none might know.
But if Truth’s hid in Wine, as proverbs tell,
I’ll warrant me the Germans find this well.
~John Owen (c.1564–1620s), Welsh epigrammatist [a.k.a. Audoenus –tg]

The plot is laid: if all things fall out right,
I shall as famous be by this exploit
As Scythian Tomyris by Cyrus’ death.
~William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part I, c.1597  [Countess of Auvergne, II, 3. Bonus quote referencing the woman, Queen of the Massagetae, who is the earliest person I can find saying a version of wine sinks words swim. Anyone with other roots of this proverb beyond those on this page, I’d be delighted if you’d let me know. –tg]