Skin of One’s Teeth.

Over at, Dave Wilton discusses one of the odder idioms:

To escape by the skin of one’s teeth is to narrowly avoid some hazard. It’s an idiom, which by definition makes no literal sense; teeth, of course, don’t have skin. It’s an example of what happens when one attempts to translate an idiom word for word from one language to another.

Unlike many other idioms, however, we know its origin and how it became a fixture in the English language. The phrase is the result of overly literal Biblical translation. It first appears in the 1560 Geneva Bible in Job 19:20. This verse appears in the midst of a passage where Job is complaining about his trials and tribulations:

My bone cleaueth to my skin & to my flesh, and I haue escaped with the skinne of my tethe.

The phrasing was repeated, with one minor change, in the 1611 Authorized or King James Version […] Its place in this translation is what secured its place as an idiom.

But, as I said, it is an overly literal translation. The original Hebrew is בְּעוֹר שִׁנָּי (bĕʿōr šinnāi, with the skin of my teeth). The exact meaning of this Hebrew passage has been subject to much commentary and debate, but most scholars agree that it has nothing to do with escaping or avoiding hazards. The Latin Vulgate gives a different translation, which, regardless of whether or not it is an accurate rendition of the original Hebrew meaning, has the virtues of making sense and being internally consistent with the rest of the passage. Job 19:20 in that translation reads:

pelli meae consumptis carnibus adhesit os meum et derelicta sunt tantummodo labia circa dentes meos

(The flesh being consumed, my bone has adhered to my skin, and nothing but lips are left about my teeth)

Translators seem to feel free to play around with this to their own satisfaction; the New English Bible has “I gnaw my under-lip with my teeth,” and the Church Slavic (Elizavetinskaya) bible has “кѡ́сти же моѧ҄ въ зѹбѣ́хъ содержа́тсѧ” [my bones are held in my teeth]. I welcome all thoughts about what the Hebrew might mean.


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    The Kusaal version (presumably based on one of the more recent English translations) is the rather prosaic

    M yʋ’ʋn lieb nɛ kɔnba ma’aa; di kpɛlim bi’ela ka m kpiin.
    “Then I became just bones; it nearly came about that I died.”

    The 1588 Welsh is much like the AV/KJV:

    Fy esgyrn a lynodd wrth fy nghroen, ac wrth fy nghnawd; ac â chroen fy nannedd y dïengais.
    “My bones stuck to my skin and to my flesh; and by the skin of my teeth did I escape.”

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    The Mooré version is less bald than the Kusaal:

    Yaa m gãongã ne m kõaba bal n keta. Mam no‑gãonga vɛɛgame n bas m yẽna yɩnga.
    “It is only my skin and bones that are left. My lips have drawn away leaving my teeth exposed.”

  3. I guess there should be a mention of Thornton Wilder’s play, though I confess I haven’t read or seen it.

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    The LXX has

    ἐν δέρματί μου ἐσάπησαν αἱ σάρκες μου, τὰ δὲ ὀστᾶ μου ἐν ὀδοῦσιν ἔχεται.

    Which I think means “My flesh has rotted in my skin, and my bones cling to the teeth”, though I am conscious of the old Classics master’s apophthegm that “nonsense is always wrong”, and suspect that I may have perpetrated a howler. At any event, it seems pretty remote from the Hebrew text as we have it.

  5. That’s a nice exercise, Hat. There’s a lot packed into deciphering the Hebrew of this, and I’ll write more in a bit when I have more time.

    There’s a wonderful internet Hebrew quadriliteral root, אמלק ’mlk, an acronym of ארוך מדי; לא קראתי ’arokh midai; lo karati ‘too long; (I) didn’t read’; hence ‘to summarize’, or if you will ‘to tl;dr’.

    So for now, le’amlek, I think the phrase means something like ‘the skin has stuck to my teeth’.

    Meanwhile, ponder on the delightful Mishnaic Hebrew expression כְּרֵסָהּ בֵּין שִׁנֶּיהָ krēsāh bēin šinneihā lit. ‘her belly is between her teeth’, meaning ‘she is (visibly) pregnant’. That one is harder to explain.

  6. At any event, it seems pretty remote from the Hebrew text as we have it.

    But it does explain the Church Slavic.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    The Peshitta, on the other hand, seems just to render the Hebrew text (as we have it) literally: “and I have escaped with the skin of my teeth.” (ואתפלטת במשכא דשני)

  8. There’s a 1982 paper, “Text und Textgeschichte in Hiob XIX: Zu Problemen in V. 14-15, 20, 23-24” with several pages dedicated to this verse, but I don’t read German very well.

  9. Good find! Here’s the introduction to Kutsch’s discussion of the passage:

    Noch größer sind die Schwierigkeiten, die V. 20b seinem Verstehen entgegensetzt. Zwar ist jedes Wort lexikalisch bekannt, so daß der Text übersetzt werden kann: “Und ich entkam mit der Haut meiner Zähne,” aber keines der drei hebräischen Wörter ist, sei es nach seiner Bedeutung, sei es nach seiner Form eindeutig und unbestritten — und das bereits seit den alten Versionen. Zwar Aquila, eine Lesart von Symmachus und im wesentlichen Theodotion und auch das mittelalterliche Targum folgen dem MT, nicht aber die LXX, eine zweite Symmachus-Lesart und die Vulg. Wir gliedern die folgenden Erwägungen nach den verschiedenen — tatsächlich oder nur scheinbar gegebenen — Möglichkeiten, die Wurzel mlṭ zu verstehen; dabei können nicht alle vorliegenden Erwägungen zum Text aufgenommen werden.

    The discussion itself is detailed and technical, and I refer interested readers to pp. 473-81 of the paper.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    He discusses what one might call the “standard” interpretation, that the expression is a proverb meaning something like “I got away without suffering the extremes of it” (i.e. the gums, at least, were spared) but points out that this doesn’t seem to fit the context very well, where Job is talking about just how very extreme his suffering actually is.

    Various people have naturally suggested emendations of the text. The LXX version (which it seems I’ve construed right after all) might suggest an original “I’ve taken my skin/bones in my teeth” as an idiom meaning something like “I’ve put my life on the line.” Other suggestions have been emending the verb to agree with the teeth, so that it is the teeth which are sticking out (escaping) from the skin (this must be at the back of the Mooré version I cited above); or the bones which are sticking out like teeth. But all these involve a lot of messing with the actual text. Messing with the construction instead might give “I am left with only my skull” (“the bone in which the teeth are set.”)

    Other suggestions have involved the verb not meaning “escape” but “stick to” (as the root actually does, e.g. in the Hebrew word for “cement.”) That goes with the LXX reading too, I think; or the phrase might mean something like “I [i.e. my tongue] stick to my gums.” Comparison with other Semitic languages has thrown up suggestions that the verb might here mean “gnaw” or “strip the hair off.” The latter might make sense of the weird LXX reading by interpreting it as “Job has lost his hair, so his bones are showing through his skin and he can gnaw them.” (Apparently.)

    The New English Bible underlip-gnawing comes via interpreting the “skin” word as “underlip”, like the Arabic ġaurun (the NEB is actually notorious for this kind of appeal to supposed cognates.) Unfortunately there is no evidence at all for this meaning elsewhere in Hebrew.

    Yet other suggestions have been the verb here actually means “be bald” (“I am bald to the gums”), or possibly in a derived/metaphorical sense referring to the wasting away of the flesh over the bones.

    A yet further problem is that it is not certain that “skin of the teeth” actually means “gums”; this interpretation apparently is not attested until mediaeval times.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    The “stick to” interpretation of the verb actually fits the expected parallelism with the first half of the verse nicely. It’s a pity it’s not easier to make it work with the following words. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that something has gone awry with the Hebrew text that we’ve now got (which wouldn’t be astonishing with Job.)

    But there must have been a whole world of proverbs and idioms in Biblical Hebrew which are now lost to us forever, not just the (surprisingly many) individual words whose meanings the New English Bible translators were given to guessing from supposed Arabic cognates (if you can’t find an Arabic lookalike for pretty much any given Semitic word, you probably just aren’t trying hard enough.)

  12. It’s a different issue, but the verse sticks out in subject matter from the surrounding verses, which are about Job’s friends and family rejectng him.

  13. There’s so much weirdness in Job!

  14. I guess there should be a mention of Thornton Wilder’s play, …

    I find much useful discussion of the play’s title here.

    There’s so much weirdness in Job!

    Oooh yes. Of course, many mistranslations, misreadings, and misunderstandings take on a vigorous and productive afterlife of their own. Often more than an “authentic” apprehension of the original can lay claim to. Consider, from an errant Vulgate version of Psalm 75 (or however you want to number it):

    Illuminans tu mirabiliter a montibus aeternis;
    turbati sunt omnes insipientes corde.
    Dormierunt somnum suum,
    et nihil invenerunt omnes viri divitiarum in manibus suis.

    Little correspondence to the Hebrew, but surging with moral power. (I’ve set it as a small motet, a 5 voci.)

    A challenge to Hatters: render that Latin into equally forceful English (without, this time, strategic misapprehension or any such fecund shifts of art).

  15. While we’re on unusual ancient Hebrew expressions related to mouths, is there any reasonable explanation of Gideon’s men lapping water with their tongues like dogs? Online Christian interpreters focus on confusion over which of his men drank which way, rather than the core problem, that humans can’t actually drink with their tongues. Was there an ancient typo or something?

  16. Stu Clayton says

    The ODNB on teeth:

    # In the last year of his life Herbert [King of Albania, failed] was revisited by the total blindness which had afflicted his earlier years. In 1923, at a Balliol gaudy, he met his old tutor, A. L. Smith, now the master, who advised him that the best cure for blindness was to have the teeth extracted. Following this advice, Herbert developed blood poisoning and died on 26 September 1923 at 12 Beaumont Street, Portland Place, London. #

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    But was his sight restored?

  18. Stu Clayton says

    They always stop just short of saying what you really want to know.

    A further example:

    # Although born into a family of great wealth and influence, Herbert suffered an affliction of the eyes from an early age which made him in effect blind for much of his life. #

    No explanation follows of what that “although” is supposed to mean.

  19. Qumran caves preserved two mss of ancient Targum of Job. One, 4Q157, is a small fragment. The other, 11Q10, has parts of 38 columns, but not this verse. So I am not authorized to say:
    and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.

  20. Andrej Bjelaković says

    The Serbian translation has:
    За кожу моју као за месо моје прионуше кости моје; једва оста кожа око зуба мојих.

    which means something like My bones clung to my skin and to my flesh; the skin around my teeth barely remained.

  21. @Ryan: I figured the intended distinction with the drinking was meant to be the same one as in The Island of Doctor Moreau:

    “Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
    “Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
    “Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
    “Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
    “Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?”

    That is, the bit about tongues is not the important part, but just there for color. What matters is sticking their mouths down into the water.

  22. As Master Hat has invoked, sight unseen—or is that cite unseen?—Thornton Wilder’s work,
    it may be of interest to observe a poet’s prose:

    “… seated by his side was a thin, bald, pale old man with his cheeks in his mouth;”

    Dylan Thomas
    The Peaches (short story)
    Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (collection)

  23. >the bit about tongues is not the important part, but just there for color

    Perhaps. The phrase יָלֹק בִּלְשׁוֹ “lap/lick with the tongue” seems to double down, but maybe you’re right that it’s still comic exaggeration for the comparison with dogs drinking.

    But the whole passage remains extremely odd to me. Even accepting the dubious distinction between those who “lap with their tongue” (but don’t actually lap with their tongue) and those who “bend their knees”, how long would it take you to drink enough? Did Israelite hosts not bring any drinking implements with them when traveling through arid lands? Did they learn nothing from 40 years wandering in the desert?

    Why is God singling out the lappers, even if they’re really not lappers, but men on one hand and two knees trying to drink from a single cupped hand? Theoretically the message was “a small fraction of our army could beat them”. But I read it as “even the idiots in our army could beat them”? Which doesn’t seem like the kind of heroic tale one would pass down.

    I recognize it’s a silly thing to balk at. And I’m certainly not trying to work out the “meaning behind God’s word.” It’s just that frequently Tanakh is self-aware about the parts that are miraculous, fairly true-to-life in its mundane descriptions. Something seems scrambled here to me.

  24. Kate Bunting says

    I have a vague recollection of being told once that the men who drank from cupped hands were better able to look out for danger – but that doesn’t make sense if it was the ‘lappers’ who were chosen.

  25. PlasticPaddy says

    I thought the point was to have an army of “retards”, so that the victory could be attributed solely to God.

  26. David Marjanović says

    The lips sticking to the teeth, and perhaps failing to close, would make some sense as a description of drying out. “I basically became a mummy.”

  27. I read once that Thornton Wilder once received a complaint from a translator that the title of The Skin of Our Teeth couldn’t be rendered into Hebrew.

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