Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Skin Of His Teeth

Posted by Elyse Bruce on October 17, 2011

If you know someone who tells you that something happened to him or her by the skin of his or her teeth, it means that person either narrowly escaped a negative experience or narrowly managed to succeed,  and it all happened at the last minute! 

In Ontario, the recent provincial election at the beginning of October (2011) was a real nail biter in some regions.  In fact, it was reported on the website www.viewmag.com that some candidates barely won their seats.

In Thunder Bay–Atikokan, Liberal Bill Mauro held on again by the skin of his teeth, although this time he increased his plurality to 452 votes over the NDP.

The Democratic Convention back in 1956 also had its nail biting moments during their primaries.  In fact, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported the following in an article entitled, “Adlai Skins His Teeth” in their May 31, 1956 edition:

By the skin of his teeth, Adlai Stevenson has taken 22 of Florida’s 28 Democratic convention votes in an apathetic primary contest with Senator Estes Kefauver.  The closeness of the vote, however, will soon be forgotten.  The important thing is that Mr. Stevenson won.

It seems that the world of politics like to use the phrase moreso than others.  The phrase is found in the New York Times article of June 22, 1912 in an article entitled, “Democrats’ Method Of Nomination Best” where the following appears:

The Democratic way is really the better way.  It prevents a mere majority, by whatever means obtained, by bribery or force or promise, from compelling the party to accept the leadership of the candidate chosen by the skin of his teeth to do battle for the party.  Better make the choice of candidates a little harder than subject the party to defeat, even for the sake of making an Oyster Bay holiday.

On April 11, 1846 the Courrier de la Louisiane published a news story entitled, “Whig Victory” where the newspaper reported the following in part:

But in all the multitudinous and infinitely diversified changes and shiftings of political parties ever imagined, who expected to hear S.J. Peters affect to exult over a triumph of the Second Municipality?  And what is the triumph over which he exults?  He is re-elected by the skin of his teeth Alderman in the second ward, and two sound Democrats are elected in the same ward, where, four years ago, Peters would have told any man he was made who should have thought of opposing him or his Whig followers: Crossman is elected Mayor although is in a very small minority — other branch of this magnificent “triumph of the people!”

Now the phrase did appear in the King James Bible of 1611 with the entire verse being:

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.

However, before the King James Bible, the phrase appeared in 1560 in the Geneva Bible, where, in Job 19:20, the literal translation of the original Hebrew is given as being:

I haue escaped with the skinne of my tethe.

That being said, the phrase appears in Latin in the Medieval Latin Bibles produced by hand before the invention of printing and in Greek in Greek texts.  And so, the phrase dates back to Biblical times but how far back? 

Based on information provided in the Book of Job, readers know that it happened well after Noah and the flood and it happened in the time of Esau who was the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham.  The name of Job is found in the Amarna letters of 1350 B.C. and in the Egyptian Execration texts of 2000 B.C. 

So while Idiomation is unable to put an exact date on the first use of the phrase skin of his teeth, it absolutely dates back far enough for readers to know it’s a very ancient saying.

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