Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Sour Grapes

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 16, 2010

The phrase “sour grapes” hints at a rich history with many twists and turns along the way and the phrase surely doesn’t disappoint to this end.  In fact, it has been used often and prolifically and always to good effect.

In 1890, the New York Times published an article on April 23rd with a headline that read:  “Any Sour Grapes Here?  Bulkeley Is Not Seeking A Renomination For Governor.”  Nearly a decade before that, in 1882, his book “The Tyne And Its Tributaries,” William James Palmer wrote:

The ambition to become connected with the house of Stuart, ascribed to the grandfather, had realization in the marriage of his son to Mary Tudor, youngest natural daughter of Charles II.  But the sour grapes were left for the son of the marriage, and the beheading on Tower Hill, February 24, 1716, seems to have followed in almost natural sequence.

John Wycliffe (1324 – 1384), an Oxford-educated English theologian, lay preacher, reformist and university teacher was known as an early dissident in the Roman Catholic Church during the 14th century.  In 1371, the popularity of his doctrines were seenseen in the oft-repeated complaints of Archbishop Arundel, who wrote that “Oxford was a vine that brought forth wild and sour grapes, which, being eaten by the fathers, the teeth of the children were set on edge; so that the whole Province of Canterbury was tainted with novel and damnable Lollardism, to the intolerable and notorious scandal of the University.”

Rabbi Raschi,  born at Troyes in 1040, is credited with a story about a fox and a wolf who visit a Jewish house to prepare food for the Sabbath.   Upon arriving at the house, the wolf is chased away while the fox is welcomed.  When the wolf asks the fox for an explanation, the fox replies: 

This has happened not on thy account but on account of thy father who helped prepare the food and then swallowed every fat bit.  The fathers eat sour grapes and the chidlren’s teeth are set on edge.

The fable owes some of its story line to the Greek philosopher, Aesop.  In the Aesop fable “The Fox and the Grapes” the fox sees a cluster of ripe grapes hanging from the vine.  Despite her most ardent efforts, she cannot reach them and rather than admit defeat she proclaims, “The grapes are sour, and not ripe as I thought.”

And yes, the phrase even appears in the Old Testament of the Bible in Jeremiah 31: 28-33:

And it shall come to pass, that like as I have watched over them, to pluck up, and to break down, and to throw down, and to destroy, and to afflict; so will I watch over them, to build, and to plant, saith the LORD.

In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge.

Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD:  But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people.

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