Phrase origin – By the skin of my teeth

By the skin of my teeth – To manage something by only a narrow margin.

This phrase comes from the christian bible, its first use was in the Geneva bible of 1557 where the phrase was: “I haue escaped with the skinne of my tethe.” In the King James version of the bible, this bacame “and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth”.

In the ‘great bible’ (of which the Geneva bible is a translation) from 1539 the line reads: “only there is left mey faynne aboute my teth” With “faynne” being an archaic spelling of feign and “teth” an arhaic spelling of teeth.

In the story, the character Job has suffered some torment and is conveying that he only got through it narrowly, the attention to the teeth is thought to be because when someone has nothing else to fight with they have only their teeth left as a weapon (consider ‘fight tooth and nail’).

The feigning says to me that Job didn’t quite have to use his teeth, but felt that he amlost did. My interpretation of the great bible would read ‘It was such a hard experience, I was desperate and was just about to bite the buggers’.

The Geneva bible was written by some protestants who fled England at the time of Mary I, as she was having protestants killed (earning her the nickname ‘bloody Mary’), and travelled to Geneva. They translated this passage of the Great bible to “I haue escaped with the skinne of my tethe” but the authors of the Douay-Rheims Bible, a translation from a similar time period, tranlated it to “and nothing but lips are left about my teeth.”.

The skin reference can really be pinned on these Geneva bible guys, the idea of a feigned distance between where Job felt he was and actual biting seems to me, to mean the distance was immeasurablysmall, the use of skin of the teeth as an imaginary or feigned physical part is quite a good one, but really if you don’t know the original phrase, it’s clear to see how the metaphor has been lost.

 

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