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I have often heard people say

I could drink you under the table

or

Mary drank Joe under the table

This typically means that someone could drink more alcohol than someone else.

What is the origin of this phrase?

It doesn't seem to make much sense to me at face value.

Sorry, I couldn't find any public uses of this phrase as I have never read it, I have only heard it used in conversation.

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3  
When you drink too much alcohol, one common ailment is that you pass out. So to drink someone under the table would mean to drink so much that one of them would pass out and end up under the table. –  OghmaOsiris Oct 28 '11 at 15:45
    
Pretty much all the answers are the same, ahahaha. –  Mahnax Oct 28 '11 at 15:50
    
Or, as Dorothy Parker said, One more drink and I'll be under the host.' –  Barrie England Oct 28 '11 at 16:53
    
@Barrie: The way I heard it, it was One more drink and I'll be under the the table, two more drinks and I'll be under the host. –  FumbleFingers Oct 28 '11 at 17:56
1  
Been researching on the Internet for a while. Now I have to give up. This question has challenged me under the table! –  Terry Li Oct 28 '11 at 20:26

6 Answers 6

up vote 11 down vote accepted

When you drink enough, one or the other person will eventually slide off his seat, ending up under the table.

Reference: past experience

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8  
+1 for the reference (if I weren't at the daily limit already) –  Jim Oct 28 '11 at 15:48
    
-1 for the question though. As an Okie, my past experience tells me someone from Little Rock should have already known this. :-) –  T.E.D. Nov 2 '12 at 19:39

Found this possible first recorded use of the phrase in Count Benyowsky; or, The Conspiracy of Kamtschatka, 1798 (check) by August von Kotzebue:

http://books.google.com/books?id=7V4HAAAAQAAJ&pg=PA28&dq=%22drink+*+under+*+table%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=dnQGT8DVMcjDgQek4aSMBw&ved=0CE4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22drink%20*%20under%20*%20table%22&f=false

The full line reads:

He will drink you under the table, though you should have been all your life a tapster at a gin shop.

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You took your time finding it, but impressive diligence, as ever. My work here is done, so I'll delete my 1809 one. I can only give you one vote though - the other 5 will just get lost somewhere in the system... –  FumbleFingers Jan 6 '12 at 4:54

It comes from the idea of two people competing to drink the most, or sitting at a table together matching each other shot-for-shot. By the end of it, the loser is likely to be very intoxicated and on the floor (under the table). Therefore, the winner "drinks the loser under the table"

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1632

The earliest in the OED is from before 1636. The earliest I found is from the 1638 The Soules Preparation for Christ: a Treatise of Contrition by Thomas Hooker:

There are many that defpight the fpitit of gra- cr, and stick not to fay, I did fweare fuch a man ont of the houfe , and I did drinke fuch a man under the table dead:

There are many that despight the spirit of grace, and stick not to say, I did sweare such a man out of the house, and I did drinke such a man under the table dead

Edit: This same book was also published in 1632 (EEBO [£]) and is the earliest I found of the verb drink in to drink someone under the table. The following aren't the same use of the verb, but are examples of someone being so drunk (or being made drunk) so as to be under the table.

1628

A 1628 text by the rector Henry Burton warns on the dangers of drunkenness (in The seuen vials or a briefe and plaine exposition vpon the 15: and 16: chapters of the Revelation very pertinent and profitable for the Church of God in these last times, page 128, EEBO):

And aboue all, drunkennesse. For that strips a man of his garment, makes him naked, and men see his shame. Noah was once drunke, and he lay vncouered in his Tent, that his shame was seene. But now he is accounted no man, that will not drinke drunke, till he lie vnder the Table, like a dogg at his vomit, or wallow in the kennell, like a hogg in the mire.

1628

Also from 1628, William Prynne wrote in Healthes: sicknesse. Or A compendious and briefe discourse; prouing, the drinking and pledging of healthes, to be sinfull, and vtterly vnlawfull vnto Christians by arguments, Scriptures, fathers, moderne diuines, Christian authors, historians, councels; imperiall lawes and constitutions; and by the voyce and verdict of prophane and heathen writers: wherein all those ordinary obiections, excuses, or pretences which are made to iustifie, extenuate, or excuse the drinking or pledging of healthes, are likewise cleared and answered (EEBO, page 17):

It is registred of the ancient Germans: that they sit drinking: and of the moderne Germans, that they sit Healthing night and day, till they haue laid one another dead drunke vnder the Table.

And on page 23:

Let it not be storied of vs, as it is of the Ancient and moderne Germans. (n) That they Carrouze, and Health, and Drinke so long, till they haue laid one another dead drunke vnder the Table, or caused one another to vomit vp their shame, and surfet: (a sinne to common in our swinish age) and a custome among Drunkards in (o) Saint Ambrose his dayes.

1624

William Jemmat wrote in A spirituall trumpet exciting and preparing to the Christian warfare (1624, page 257, EEBO):

As for example: how many are there, who set themselues to make their brother drunken, and lay him vnder the table?

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Earliest evidence in OED is from around 1636, by an author called Rogers:

"They get Beer of extraordinary strength, and...make matches who shall drink each other drunk under the Table."

The sense was evidently that a person became so drunk that he could no longer sit or stand, but ended up lying under the table. So, it's obviously much earlier than the saloons of the Wild West, but the quotation does suggest that it might have started off with drinking contests ("matches").

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"a 1636" in the OED means "before 1636" (a is for ante). –  Hugo Nov 14 '12 at 15:01
1  
Yup, I know. It means it was written before the author died in 1636. Likely not too long before he died, in most cases, hence I decided on the more general "around". I'll be more precise in future! Thanks :) –  Berthilde Nov 14 '12 at 15:17

I believe this came from drinking contests (possibly in saloons). They would drink until one of them had passed out or collapsed (under the table), and simply means that I can drink more alcohol than you.

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I don't think we really need invoke drinking contests in [wild west?] saloons. It's natural macho behaviour for men the world over. I just think it's a bit of a bummer for many Asian guys when the "dueling pistol" is in fact alcohol. –  FumbleFingers Oct 28 '11 at 22:41

protected by Will Hunting Nov 14 '12 at 12:20

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