4 sayings you didn’t know had Biblical origins
If someone asks you where a quotation comes from, you’d usually fare pretty well if you answered either ‘Shakespeare’ or ‘the Bible’. On occasions, both. Indeed, OxfordWords concocted a quiz along those very lines – but some everyday phrases hide their biblical origins, while there are others you probably have a hunch come from the Bible, but they don’t mean quite what you think…
Turn the other cheek
Turn the other cheek has been closely associated with Christianity in popular culture for some time, and no lesser biblical scholars than the Black Eyed Peas made reference to it in their breakthrough hit ‘Where is the love?’ in the verse:
People killin’, people dyin’
Children hurt and you hear them cryin’
Can you practise what you preach?
Or would you turn the other cheek?
Far be it from me to criticise lyricists who kick off a song by rhyming ‘mama’ with ‘mamas’, but in this case they’ve slightly missed the point. While seeming to use turn the other cheek to indicate looking the other way, ignoring the problem, the more accurate use is that defined by Oxford Dictionaries: ‘refrain from retaliating when one has been attacked or insulted’. The biblical context makes it even clearer: ‘If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.’ The idea isn’t to look away, but to meet attacks with vulnerability – basically Jesus (who speaks these words in his famous Sermon on the Mount) is advocating the very opposite of revenge.
Incidentally, while practise what you preach sounds like it might come from the Bible, the earliest reference to it in the current Oxford English Dictionary entry comes at one remove – in a 1615 exposition of Colossians (a book of the New Testament).
You’ve probably used the word scapegoat before, meaning ‘a person who is blame for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency’. This use developed in the 19th century, and the first use in the current OED entry comes from a very popular 1820s novel by Mary Mitford called Our Village.
Rather earlier than this in English – and much earlier, naturally, in Hebrew – the scapegoat was a real animal. It was a goat upon which the Jewish chief priest symbolically laid the sins of the people:
the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat (Leviticus 16)
The goat then died of starvation in the wilderness, as a form of atonement – replaced in the New Testament by the sacrifice of Jesus, to the relief of goats everywhere. It might not be fun being the scapegoat in modern-day English, but it’s preferable to what the original went through.
Land of Nod
Anybody with children – or who has been child, to widen the net a little – has probably referred to the land of Nod, as a fanciful way of describing sleep. The first recorded person to do so, at least written down, is the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift. It doesn’t appear as one of the travel destinations in that 1726 novel, but in the snappily-titled 1738 work: A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, According to the Most Polite Mode and Method Now Used at Court, and in the Best Companies in England.
Possibly associated with nod off in the sense ‘to fall asleep’, which dates back to the late 17th century, you might be surprised to learn that the Land of Nod makes an appearance in the Bible and has nothing whatsoever to do with catching forty winks. Rather, you’ll find it in Genesis 4:16, when Cain is sent away after killing his brother Abel: ‘So Cain went from the LORD’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden’. In its Biblical context, then, it is simply the name of a place – and, as a bonus, this is also the verse from which John Steinbeck took the title for his 1952 novel East of Eden, which was inspired by the account of Cain and Abel.
A fly in the ointment
A fly in the ointment is a ‘minor irritation that spoils the success or enjoyment of something’, as you would imagine a fly in the ointment would be. The biblical original, from Ecclesiastes 10:1, is also using the image as a metaphor, albeit a slightly different one. The most recent translations of the Bible don’t use the word ointment – the popular New International Version chooses perfume – but the King James Version notes: ‘Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour’.
So, while we might use fly in the ointment to refer to, say, a holiday that was brilliant except for an overcrowded train, the author of Ecclesiastes is talking about human traits instead. And while a fly in ointment is an irritating thing to remove, perhaps your first thought hadn’t been about the smell that they’d cause – it does lead one to question how long the flies had been there.