6 Common Words And Phrases That Have Religions Origins

March 10th 2017

Almie Rose

It can be easy to find religion in American culture — for example, a dollar bill is clear that it's "in God we trust."

one dollar bill

But there are popular phrases we use often that you may not have even realized have religious origins. Here are six common idioms, words, and phrases that fit that description.

1. By the skin of my teeth

This phrase has biblical origins, though the Bible does not explain what exactly the skin of teeth actually are. When we say today that someone got something "by the skin of their teeth" we're implying that they barely achieved something. Oxford Dictionary pinpoints the phrase's origins to The Book of Job (19:20) in which God saves Job from Satan: "My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth."


We all know that teeth don't have skin, so what was Job talking about? "The most plausible explanation is that it refers to the thin porcelain exterior of the tooth," Oxford Dictionary explains.

2. Don't put words in my mouth

If you tell someone "don't put words in my mouth" you're telling them not to speak for you, or to misinterpret what you're saying.

However, this idiom used to mean the exact opposite, according to The King's English, an extensive blog about the language of The King James Bible.

In Exodus, "Moses is meant to put words in his brother Aaron’s mouth," The King's English states, adding, "...he wants his brother to be his mouthpiece." Here's how they break it down:

"And the LORD said unto him, Who hath made man’s mouth?" (Exodus 4:11)

But Moses responds, effectively saying "Send someone else."  (Exodus 4:13)

And the LORD is angry with him (v14).  Not for some failure of self-confidence, but for his failure of God-confidence. Moses does not trust the LORD to do in him what He commands of him.

And so we come to our phrase for today. The LORD brings up Aaron, Moses' elder brother, and says to Moses: "thou shalt speak unto him, and put words in his mouth: and I will be with thy mouth, and with his mouth, and will teach you what ye shall do. And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people:  (Exodus 4:15)"

At some point, this idiom took on a less earnest interpretation, which stuck.

3. A sign of the times

If you're commenting on a particular trend or fad, you may shrug it off as simply "a sign of the times" but this phrase originally appeared in The Bible. However, it only became commonplace after how Pope John XXIII used it in 1961 in relation to The Catholic Church.

Pope John XXIII

Pope John XXIII called upon the Vatican II to "read the signs of the times." As Encyclopedia explains:

"'Signs of the times' was first used in a theological context by Pope John XXIII in the Bull Humanae salutis (Dec. 25, 1961), in which he convened the Vatican Council, to meet in the next year. After dismissing those who see only darkness burdening the face of the earth, the Pope stated:

'We renew our confidence in our Savior who has not left the world he redeemed. Instead we make our own the recommendation that one should know how to distinguish the signs of the times (Mt 16:4) and we seem to see now in the midst of so much darkness a few indications that argue well for the fate of the Church and humanity (sec. 3).'"

Basically, The Pope was encouraging the church to sort of wake up and try to adhere to the modern world. Now we use it in a much more common way, such as when we identify puffy sleeves on wedding dresses in the 1980's to be a "sign of the times."

4. Scapegoat

A scapegoat is someone you place blame upon (usually unfairly). This word appears in Leviticus 16:8, according to Reader's Digest, and explains what it means in The Bible (and yes, it began with a literal goat, being sacrificed):

"The Book of Leviticus describes the proper ceremonies to be observed on the Jewish Day of Atonement, when the land of Israel would be ritually cleansed of its sins. The procedure was that one goat would be offered to God as a sacrifice, while the other—the 'scapegoat'—would be symbolically loaded with all the misdeeds of the nation before being driven into the wilderness."

5. The writing is on the wall

writing on the wall

If you say "the writing is on the wall" you likely mean something bad or ominous is imminent (as opposed to meaning there is literal writing on a wall somewhere). The Phrase Finder claims this phrase is "of Aramaic origin" but can be found in "the Bible, Daniel 5, in the story of Belshazzar's feast."

And yes: This did begin with the story of literal writing on a wall, as Bible Gateway explains. Belshazzar is having a grand old feast when out of nowhere, a hand appears in the air and writes "mene mene tekel upharsin" on a wall. Belshazzar doesn't know what that means, and asks someone for help. That someone is Daniel who is able to translate it. It's not good:

"MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it.
TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting.
PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians."

Belshazzar was killed that night. He couldn't read the writing on the wall.

6. A drop in the bucket

Bucket & spade

If you're fundraising and your goal is $5,000 and someone donates $150, you might say something like "it's a nice gesture but it's just a drop in the bucket" (and hopefully not to their face). According to Deseret News Faith, this idiom can be found in Isaiah 40:15: "Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing."

As for the phrase "kicked the bucket," etymologists still can't completely agree where that came from.