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In the beginning were the words: Even nonbelievers often speak in the language of the Bible

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I write a weekly pastor’s column for the bulletins of my two parishes, Holy Cross in Dover and Immaculate Conception, in Marydel, Md.

Someone noted to me that the column I wrote on the topic of biblical origins of common phrases would make a nice article for the Catechetical Corner column in The Dialog. Who am I to disagree? “What I have written, I have written” (John 19:22) and here it is.

It is commonly put forth that it’s a small world. This phrase means to impute the understanding that we are not merely careering haplessly through this life, but that there are connections — sometimes surprising ones — that bind us as God’s children.

These same connections exist in many aspects of our language; there are everyday words and phrases that we use that find their origin in the Scriptures. So, as much as we commonly use this phrase or that idiom and think they are just conventions of language, they actually have the Bible, in common, as their home.

Let’s strap ourselves into the Way-back Machine for this multiple-millennia journey back in time to see the origin of some of the idioms of our language:

 

• It’s a drop in the bucket

This idiom, meaning a very small part of a larger need, finds its origin in Isaiah 40-15: “… the nations count as a drop in the bucket, as a wisp of cloud on the scales.” Be sure to include that Scripture reading on your “bucket list.”

• There’s a fly in the ointment

This saying, meaning there is a problem in the plan, goes back to Ecclesiastes 10:1: “Dead flies corrupt and spoil the perfumer’s oil.” Ladies, let me say to you that finding flies in one’s perfume is not a nice thing to ponder – so don’t let it cause you to worry about your perfume, lest it become Obsession.

• Bites the dust

This alternate way saying that someone died finds its origin in the Psalm 27, albeit in a different form: “May his foes kneel before him, his enemies lick the dust.” The words are different, the meaning is the same. Although, I don’t how many records Queen would have sold, if they had a song called, “Another One Licks the Dust.”

• A little bird told me

OK, this doesn’t exactly have a verbatim origin in the Bible, but a little bird told me that Ecclesiastes 10:20 comes darn close: “For the birds of the air may carry your voice, a winged creature may tell what you say.” This is probably a precursor to posting “Tweets.”

• Going the extra mile

This comes from Matthew 5:41: “Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles.” It means to go beyond what is asked of you. In a fast food scenario, this idiom comes when someone asks you for a hamburger, and you give ’em a Big Mac.

• The blind leading the blind

This also comes from Matthew (15:14): as Christ comments about those darn recalcitrant Pharisees he says that: “they are blind guides of the blind. If a blind person leads a blind person, both will fall into a pit.” This refers to an uninformed person guiding another uninformed person. It would be like Paris Hilton directing a Pauly Shore movie.

• I’m pulling my hair out

This comes from Ezra 9:3: “When I had heard this, I tore my cloak and my mantle, plucked hair from my head and beard, and sat there devastated.” Ouch. This saying refers to a person being very anxious about something. If one is too anxious, it could be a case of hair today, gone tomorrow.

• The writing is on the wall

This idiom comes from the famous scene from the book of Daniel 5:5, when a disembodied hand scrawls a message on the palace wall: “Suddenly, opposite the lampstand, the fingers of a human hand appeared, writing on the plaster of the wall in the king’s palace.” The king does not understand the message, so Daniel helps the king to grasp its meaning. Interestingly, this saying has morphed. It no longer means a cryptic message, but rather, an obvious one. Hence, when the boss writes on your pay stub, “We’ll miss you!” The writing is on the wall for you, you’re fired.

• His knees were knocking

OK, remember the King in Daniel who saw the writing on the wall inscribed by the disembodied hand? Well, he was so scared at the sight that his knees knocked together: “When the king saw the hand that wrote, his face became pale; his thoughts terrified him, his hip joints shook, and his knees knocked” (Daniel 5:6). This idiom has to do with fearing. When one fears something, his knees knock together. Interestingly, on “The Addams Family” no one seems too scared of Thing (a disembodied hand), but Lurch always gave one the heebie-jeebies.

• Nothing new under the sun

Ecclesiastes 1:9 says: “What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun.” King Solomon puts forth this gem, and it means that life (though it may seem exciting) offers little without God. And for those who watch TV, movies and listen to music, this line will indeed echo well with them: amidst the re-makes, retreads, re-releases, re-launchings and re-imaginings, there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun. Thus we experience “Return to Gilligan’s Island,” “Friday the 13th – Part VIII” and about a dozen “Brady Bunch” reunion shows.

• You don’t know the half of it

This saying speaks to the idea that one doesn’t know the full picture of what is going on. This saying comes from the Old Testament, when the Queen of Sheba said to King Solomon: “I did not believe the report until I came and saw with my own eyes that not even the half had been told me. Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report I heard.” (1 Kings 10:7). Basically, she was telling him that she didn’t know the half of it. Kind of like when someone says that on the day after Thanksgiving some stores have crowds. Well, you don’t half of it, until you’ve seen the bulls-at-Pamplona type of madness at the mall that day.

• I’ll nail him to the wall

This phrase that speaks of catching and punishing someone finds its roots in the 1 Samuel 18:10-11: “The next day an evil spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raged in his house. David was in attendance, playing the harp as at other times, while Saul was holding his spear. Saul poised the spear, thinking, ‘I will nail David to the wall!’ But twice David escaped him.” Another translation of this passage reads, “I will pin David to the wall.” While wrestling fans of WWE, WCW and ECW will appreciate the “pin” comment, “nail” really conveys the anger of the comment. That tone expands the franchise of this idiom. Thus, when you “nail” the person, the berating you give them is sometimes called a “hammering” of them or even referenced as “beating them down” – both are things that have to do with nails.

There are hundreds of other idioms with their roots in the sacred Scriptures; this column just gives a smattering of them. So, when you are reading your Bible, keep an eye and an ear out to see how many of these idioms you can find that have made the transition from the Word of God to the words of our everyday language.

 

Father Lentini is pastor of Holy Cross Church in Dover and Immaculate Conception Church in Marydel, Md.