Not so long ago, I commented on a column by Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair, in which this well-known toper addressed himself to the theme of "How To Make Drink One's Slave and Not One's Master." Having already had rich sport with Hitchens's bizarre excursus on this theme I'll confine myself here to a sentence in that same column that was widely quoted as an example of Hitchens' trenchant wit.

It dealt with the matter of how many dry martinis should a prudent drinker confront at cocktail time.

Here is what Hitchens wrote: "On the whole, observe the same rule about gin martinis -- and all gin drinks -- that you would in judging female breasts: one is far too few and three is one too many ... When you get the shudders, even slightly, it's definitely time to seek help."

Discussing this passage back in February of this year, just after his Vanity Fair column was published, I decided to pass lightly over the issue of the shakes. The portly scribbler I had observed a little more than a year earlier on a Nation cruise experienced some difficulty bringing a lighted match and the first cigarette of the morning into productive contact, and his math about the gins was definitely off. As far as dry martinis go, there's been sound evidence in the past to take Hitchens as a six-breast guy.

The first time I read the sentence about martinis and breasts it struck me as creepy. After all, these days, there are a fair amount of women out there, some of them readers of Vanity Fair, who have had a mastectomy. Shouldn't his editor at Vanity Fair have gently suggested to Hitchens that maybe he might want to reconsider the line?

Then I began to wonder whether Hitchens had simply collared the joke. These days, possible borrowings aren't that hard to check, at least at an elementary level. I went to the Google search engine on my computer and typed in "breasts; martinis; Hitchens."

Up came three citations on my original column plus two news stories, one of them in the Washington Post, crediting Hitchens with the breasts/martinis quip. At this rate he'll be in Bartlett's with it in a year or two.

But it's not his line. I slightly refined my search and in five minutes came across the same line in food and drink columns from the 1990s. For example a piece by Kathleen Sloan, June 8, 1995, in the eye WEEKLY, Toronto's arts newspaper, had her offering advice to children taking their fathers out to dinner, "If he tries to order a third, remind him that martinis are like a women's breasts: two are perfect, three is just one too many." Christopher Pyne, a cartoonist, used the line in his "Slappy Says" strip in early 2001.

On his BK Lounge Web site, dated 2002, Bryan Knox ran the quote without attribution. I e-mailed him, and he answered that "I heard that quote for the first time around 1990ish and really am not sure who originally said it. It sounds a lot like a Johnny Carson quote to me."

Meanwhile, on another Web site devoted to the ever-popular theme of cocktails, I found the quote attributed to the late great San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, who died in the late Nineties. Now Caen often wrote about the therapeutic powers of Vitamin V, aka the vodka martini, and he seems a likelier candidate than Carson. The line seems a little too edgy for him. I'm sure Herb used the line in one of his columns, though whether he claimed to have made it up, I don't yet know.

Why didn't the Vanity Fair checking department google the line, just to be on the safe side? Well, that's the problem with checking departments. They never see the wood for the trees.

Where did Hitchens get it from? Maybe from Caen. Why didn't he throw in one of those cover-your-ass phrases, like "as the old tag goes ... " Too many six-breast martini evenings and your memory goes. Next thing you know, Hitchens will be claiming he captured Baghdad single-handedly. The only question the checker will ask him is whether he'd had two or three martinis under his belt at the time.

Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at COPYRIGHT 2003 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.