Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tooth Skin

Ron from Duck Lake asked about the phrase, “by the skin of your teeth.” Today, it signifies a narrow escape. The idea is also encapsulated in phrases such as in the nick of time, by a hair’s breadth, by a whisker, just squeaked by, and close shave.

This is a case in which a lowly preposition makes a huge difference. Conveying the meaning a narrow escape, we find the preposition by. The original wording, however, was “with the skin of my teeth,” and it signified deprivation and reduction, paring things down to the bone, and severe loss.

It shows up in Job xix.20. If you recall, Job was a test case used by God to show Satan that a perfect and upright man would not abandon God even if beset by terrible loss. Job started out as a prosperous man with an immense household, huge herds of livestock, and a large, happy family. Everything was taken from him to test his devotion.

Some of the English versions of Job were direct translations from the Hebrew, which means that the choices made by the translator were critical. The first translation to use the preposition with was the Geneva Bible of 1560: “I haue escaped with the skinne of my tethe.” This was repeated in the King James Version: "My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth."

Two other translations took a different approach using a Latin base (Jerome’s Vulgate Bible), and I think that they clarify the meaning. Wycliffe’s Bible had this: “Oneli þe lippis ben laft aboute my teeþ.” [Only the lips have been left around my teeth.] The Douay Bible of 1582 reads: "My bone hath cleaved to my skin, and nothing but lips are left about my teeth."

In other words, a severely emaciated Job had a narrow escape.

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