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Hide one’s light under a bushel

Q From David Siddons: Where did the phrase hide one’s light under a bushel come from — especially the bushel bit?

A For once I can give you chapter and verse for the origin, literal chapter and verse as it happens, since it’s from the Bible, at one time most often from this famous version:

Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

King James Bible, 1611, Matthew, 5:15 and 5:16.

The bushel was at the time a container for measuring dry goods such as grain or peas. It was typically a wooden bucket with a volume of eight gallons (though this has varied over place and time).

In the original Greek text of the Gospel, the word used was related to seah, Hebrew for a rather smaller dry measure that held about a gallon and a half. King James’s translators chose bushel because it would be obvious to people of their day. The bushel measure is still used for fruit, grain and other commodities in the USA and Canada; however, modern translators of the gospels have assumed readers would be unfamiliar with the image and replaced it with basket, bowl or measuring basket.

To turn a bushel measure upside down and put a candle under it was to hide its light from view. We use hide your light under a bushel for somebody who figuratively does the same — who modestly stays silent about their talents or accomplishments.

There are thousands more the length and breadth of the country who work tirelessly for their communities and hide their light under a bushel.

The Sun, 18 Jul. 2014.

The translators of the King James Bible borrowed extensively from the work of William Tyndale and John Wycliffe. The latter’s bible, from the end of the fourteenth century, includes the same image in similar language.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 13 Sep. 2014

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 13 September 2014.