WordWatch: Skin of our teeth

It’s a cliché that turns up in bad journalism and badly written TV and movie melodramas: “It was a very close shave, and they only escaped by the skin of their teeth”.

The odd thing about this is that our teeth don’t have skin—so, what on earth does the expression mean? The answer in a moment.

First I have to point out that this is yet another expression the Bible has contributed to the English language.

The first appearance of the expression is in the English Bible produced by John Wycliffe’s team of translators in the 14th century, in their rendering of Job 19:20. And it’s still there, even in most modern translations, to this day: “… I have escaped by the skin of my teeth” (Job 19:20 ESV). The expression is there in Tyndale, in the King James Version, the Revised Standard Version, the New King James Version, the New International Version, the New Living Translation, and most others.

As such it’s yet another small reminder of the way the Bible saturates the history of western civilization.

David Crystal is the best-known (and probably the most highly regarded) linguist currently writing about the English language. His latest book is called Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language. Drawing heavily on Tyndale’s earlier translation, the KJV editors gave us the version that had the longest lasting unchallenged dominance of any translation of the Bible. And in so doing they helped shape the language we speak today.

Crystal comes to the conclusion that the Bible has contributed 257 idioms to the English language—compared to a mere 100 or so from William Shakespeare (the second largest single source of English idioms). So every time someone talks about “the salt of the earth”, or “a man after our own heart”, or “going from strength to strength”, or “a rod of iron” or… well more than 200 other idioms, they are quoting the Bible, whether they know it or not.

And now the answer to the puzzle. The skin of your teeth is (or are): your lips! Imagine being shaved with a sharp blade, one that shaves so close and is so razor sharp that it almost slices off your lips. A horrible thought, but that’s what it means to escape “by the skin of your teeth”.

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