Life and language

Tracing the origin of everyday expressions in English, Raj Chatterjee observes that there are few books in the world so replete with words of wisdom as the Old Testament.

To any lover of the language, a fascinating study is provided by tracing everyday expressions in English which have their roots in that bestseller of all times, the Bible.

Here are a few examples of what I have come across in my ‘research.’

We often hear of some kindly soul being called "the salt of the earth." On the contrary, a useless fellow with no redeeming features is described as "a good for nothing."

Matthew 5:13 reads, "Yea are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under foot of man."

There is the phrase about the right hand not knowing what the left hand does. Matthew 6:3 says, "But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth."

Giving something valuable to a person who does not appreciate its worth is, we are told, like casting pearls before swine. Matthew 7:6 reads, "Give not which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet and turn again and rend you".

"The apple of his eye" is how one describes a child precious to his father. The phrase appears in the 17th Psalm thus, "Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings".

We have occasionally approached a person, usually one’s superior, with a request or a demand. This is sometimes called "bearding a lion in his den." Chapter 17 in the first Book of Samuels has the verse, "There came a lion and I caught him by his beard and slew him".

Some of us may feel convinced that we have the seeds of an all-time great novel within us. If, after the first 5,000 words, the Muse deserts us, we can take comfort from what is said in Chapter 12, Verse 12 of the Book of Eccelesiastes. "And further, by these, my son, be admonished; of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh".

"Spare the rod and spoil the child." Many of us will painfully recall this advice given to our parents when we were very young and tender.

There are two references to the rod in the Book of Proverbs. Chapter 13, Verse 24, says, "He that spareth his rod hateth his son; but he that loveth him chastiseth him betimes". Chapter 23, Verse 13 has, "Withold not correction from the child; for if thou beatest him with the rod he shall not die". It depends, I should imagine, on the weight of the rod.

We talk of a strong drink being bad for a person little realising that the contrary advice is given in Chapter 31, Verse 6 of Proverbs, "Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts". There has never been a truer saying as I have found in my moments of depression.

"While there is life, there is hope" is sound advice and Chapter 5, Verse 4 of Isaiah says, "For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion".

To describe the plight of one who has been unfairly treated by someone else we have in Chapter 22, Verse 27 of Proverbs, "If thou hast nothing to pay, why should he take away thy bed from under thee?" Try this on your landlord the next time he wants to increase your rent.

We say of someone who has betrayed a friend or benefactor as being untrue to his salt. Chapter 41, Verse 19 in Psalms reads, "Yes mine own familiar friend in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his hand against me".

The timelessness of the earth is described in Chapter 1, Verse 4 of Ecclesiastes. "One generation passeth away and another generation cometh, but the earth abideth forever."

"Eat drink and be merry" is a phrase often heard on festive occasions. Chapter 8, Verse 15 of Ecclesiastes has, "Then I commended mirth because he hath no better thing under the sun than to eat, and to drink and to be merry for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life which God giveth him under the sun".

We say of someone who is a habitual wrongdoer that a leopard cannot change his spots. Chapter 18, Verse 23 of Jeremiah says, "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil".

A tactless person is sometimes told that there is a proper time and place for everything. Ecclesiastes Chapter 3, Verse 8 says, "In everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under the heaven".

There are few books in the world so replete with words of practical wisdom as the Old Testament. They are as true today as when they were written.