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By the skin of one’s teeth

Q From Cindy Bean: I was born and raised in Maine and still live there. Quite often I hear the expression by the skin of my teeth. We usually say it when we have done something just in the nick or time or avoided something by a very narrow margin. It doesn’t make much sense and is rather on the silly side. Does this have any special origin?

A It does indeed: it’s Biblical. It appeared first in the Geneva Bible of 1560 and was copied in the King James Bible of 1611:

Yea, young children despised me; I arose, and they spake against me. All my inward friends abhorred me: and they whom I loved are turned against me. My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.

Job, Chapter 19, verses 18–20, part of the lamentations of Job to God about his dreadful situation.

The English phrase was a direct translation of the original Hebrew, so it is very ancient indeed.

Since teeth don’t have skin, the phrase is hard to make sense of; Bible translators and commentators have struggled with it down the centuries. The Douay-Rheims Bible has instead “My bone hath cleaved to my skin, and nothing but lips are left about my teeth.” Other writers have suggested that the reference is to the gums. Modern versions often imply that Job meant the same by it as we do today by adopting our modern standard form with by in place of with. The World English Bible, for example, has “I have escaped by the skin of my teeth”.

Job’s misfortunes at the hands of God and Satan were so great that he could hardly have believed he had had much of an escape at all. Was he saying that the only part of his body that hadn’t suffered the boils and sores inflicted by Satan was the skin of his lips or gums? Was he instead saying allusively that his bodily afflictions were so great that he had had a narrow escape from death? One modern writer has concluded:

The explanations for the last metaphor are multiple and unconvincing. Its meaning eludes us.

The Book of Job, by John Hartley, 1988.

With such scholarly incomprehension, we can hardly blame English speakers for possibly having misunderstood it. As usual with idioms, we just have to accept that people mean by it what they mean by it.

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Page created 16 May 2009