By Lesli Nolen
I have been writing this column for about a year now and in that time I have had many comments about my articles. But I have received the most comments about the October 2009 issue which featured “Common Sayings Have Biblical Origins,” so I thought I would post some more. I hope you enjoy and please keep your comments and suggestions coming. I love hearing from you. Write me at
or P.O. Box 2678, San Angelo, TX 76902.
An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth
Meaning: The notion that for every wrong done there should be a compensating measure of justice.
Origin: From the Code of Hammurabi. Hammurabi was King of Babylon, 1792-1750BC. The code survives today in the Akkadian language. Used in the Bible, Matthew 5:38 (King James Version):
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”
A man after my own heart
Meaning: A kindred spirit—someone I can agree with. One of identical character or belief.
Origin: The term originates from the Bible (King James Version):
“But now thy kingdom shall not continue: the LORD hath sought him a man after his own heart, and the LORD hath commanded him to be captain over his people, because thou hast not kept that which the LORD commanded thee.”
“And when he had removed him, he raised up unto them David to be their king; to whom also he gave testimony, and said, I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after mine own heart, which shall fulfil all my will.”
Ashes to ashes
Meaning: We come from dust; we return to dust.
Origin: “Ashes to ashes” derives from the English Burial Service. The text of that service is adapted from the Biblical text, Genesis 3:19 (King James Version):
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
The 1662 version of the Book of Common Prayer indicated the manner and text of the burial service:
“Then, while the earth shall be cast upon the Body by some standing by, the Priest shall say, ‘Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of his great mercy to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.’”
The term has been used frequently in literature and song lyrics. “Ashes to Ashes” is the title of a 2009 BBC television series. It was also used as a song title by David Bowie in 1980, which included one of his best-known lyrics:
Ashes to ashes, funk to funky
We know Major Tom’s a junkie
Bite the dust
Meaning: Fall to the ground, wounded or dead.
Origin: Given the many B-feature cowboy movies in which the bad guys, or occasionally the pesky redskins, would “bite the dust,” one might expect this to be of American origin. It isn’t, though. The same notion is expressed in the earlier phrase “lick the dust,” from the Bible, where there are several uses of it, including Psalms 72 (King James Version), 1611:
“They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him and his enemies shall lick the dust.”
The earliest citation of the ‘bite the dust’ version is from 1750 by the Scottish author Tobias Smollett , in his Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane:
“We made two of them bite the dust, and the others betake themselves to flight.”
Homer’s epic poem, “The Iliad,” was written in around 700 BC. Though later written down in Greek, it was translated into English in the 19th Century by Samuel Butler whose version contains a reference to the phrase in these lines:
“Grant that my sword may pierce the shirt of Hector about his heart, and that full many of his comrades may bite the dust as they fall dying round him.”
Most likely it was Butler’s use of the phrase rather than Homer’s.
Meaning: Someone who, with no thought of reward, compassionately helps another in need.
Origin: The expression derives from the Biblical parable, Luke 10:30/33 (Miles Coverdale’s Version, 1535):
10:30 Then answered Jesus, and sayde: A certayne man wente downe from Jerusalem vnto Jericho, and fell amonge murthurers, which stryped him out of his clothes, and wounded him, and wente their waye, and left him half deed.
10:31 And by chauce there came downe a prest the same waye: and whan he sawe him, he passed by.
10:32 And likewyse a Leuite, wha he came nye vnto the same place and sawe him, he passed by.
10:33 But a Samaritane was goynge his journey, and came that waye, and whan he sawe him, he had compassion vpon him,
The figurative use of the term began in the 17th Century. In 1649, Peter Chamberlen published a book, “The Poore Mans Advocate, or, Englands Samaritan.”
Let There Be Light
Origin: This is one of the best-known phrases in English. It is a translation of the Latin fiat lux and appears in the opening lines of the Bible, in Genesis I . This was first printed in English in Miles Coverdale’s Bible, 1535:
1 In ye begynnynge God created heauen & earth:
2 and ye earth was voyde and emptie, and darcknes was vpon the depe, & ye sprete of God moued vpo the water.
3 And God sayde: let there be light, & there was light.
4 And God sawe the light that it was good. Then God deuyded ye light from the darcknes,
5 and called the light, Daye: and the darcknes, Night Then of the euenynge and mornynge was made the first daye.
Modern bureaucracy-speak over-wordiness was compared unfavourably to the beauty and clarity of the original by the journalist and broadcaster Alistair Cooke. In his acceptance speech for the “Best Speaker of English” award in 1998, he gave an imagined U.S. government representative’s version of Genesis 1:3:
“The Supreme Being mandated the illumination of the Universe and this directive was enforced forthwith.”
The root of the matter
Meaning: The essential or inner part of something.
Origin: From the Bible, Job 19:28 (King James Version):
“But ye should say, Why persecute we him, seeing the Root of the matter is found in me?”