Idioms: “The Writing on the Wall”

Belshazzar’s Feast (Rembrandt, 1635)

Idioms, also known as idiomatic phrases, are extremely important to understand a culture; more so than understanding a language. These cultural expressions can be very confusing for somebody outside the cultural environment. Idioms hence tend to confuse those not already familiar with them. Students of a new language must learn its idiomatic expressions the same way they learn its other vocabulary.

For example, he really threw me a curve when on our first date, he asked if I could pay for the dinner. In some cultures, when a man and a woman are courting each other, the male is traditionally the one who pays the bill; however, times change and in many modern societies, a lot of couples go Dutch (yet another idiom).

The most common idioms have deep roots, dating back many centuries, and can be traced across many languages. Many have translations in other languages, and tend to become international. Others only have a meaning in a tight specific group of people. As cultures are typically localized, idioms are more often not useful outside of that local context.

For today’s post I’ve selected the idiomatic phrase, “The writing on the wall.” This expression is buried deep inside the pages of time. The writing on the wall (or sometimes “handwriting on the wall”) is an expression which suggests a presage of doom or misfortune; the end of an organization or activity. It originates in the Biblical book of Daniel—where supernatural writing foretells the demise of the Babylonian Empire, but it has come to have a wide usage in language and literature.

According to the Holy Bible, during a drunken feast, King Belshazzar of Babylon employed sacred golden and silver vessels, which had been removed from the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem by his predecessor Nebuchadnezzar. Using these holy items, the King and his court praised “the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone”.

Belshazzar and his guest committed blasphemy by drinking out sacred vessels and praising gods other than the lord. Immediately, out of nowhere, the disembodied fingers of a human hand appeared before them and wrote on a wall of the royal palace the words מנא ,מנא, תקל, ופרסין (Mene, Mene, Tekel u-Pharsin).

The characters were in Hebrew, a language unfamiliar to the King of Babylon; so he called his astrologers, the Chal-de’-ans and soothsayers. Despite various incentives, none of the royal magicians or advisors could interpret the omen. The king became frustrated that the meaning of the writing couldn’t be understood; then the Queen suggested he request the assistance of a man named Daniel.

The King sends for Daniel, an exiled Jew, taken himself from Jerusalem, who had served in high office under Nebuchadnezzar. Rejecting offers of reward, Daniel warns the King of the folly of his arrogant blasphemy before reading the text.

And this is the writing that was inscribed: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN. This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE (literally a “monetary toll”), God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL (literally a “tokenary weight”), you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; PARSIN (literally a “division” or “portion”), your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.

That very night King Belshazzar is killed, and Darius the Mede becomes King. (This reflects the historically verifiable defeat and division of the Babylonian Empire by Persia).

In conclusion, the phrase “the writing on the wall” has come to signify an omen of doom—or the end of an organization or activity. To attribute to someone the ability to “read the writing on the wall” has come to signify the ability to foresee (not necessarily supernaturally) an inevitable decline and end.

I recently commented with my friend, Don Ray of Chiriqui Chatter, that I saw the writing on the wall regarding the anarchic prices of gasoline everywhere. If this trend of high gasoline prices continues, in my opinion, it will be the end of fossil fuels which would be eventually substituted by other forms of energy.

And now you know another idiomatic phrase commonly used in the United States. Good Day!

2 thoughts on “Idioms: “The Writing on the Wall””

  1. My approach to the analysis of idioms is based on determining the etymology of the idiom. It is no better or more accurate than the determination of the etymology of any other word or phrase. However, the phonetic aspect is often easier because most idioms have more syllables than most single words.

    To use an idiom properly does not require any knowledge of its etymology. However, this knowledge may help an L2 student remember an idiom and how/when to use it.

    When I was a young kid, all of my friends and I knew the meaning of “escape by the skin of my teeth” and not a single one of us knew it was the translation of B’3or SHinai, a Hebrew pun on the word B’QoSHi (which means barely, hardly, with difficulty) in the biblical book of Job 19:20.

    The majority of idioms are transliterated (not translated) from a foreign language directly into words that look/sound/feel like the target language. For English idioms, there are not a lot of foreign languages involved: Germanic languages, Latin, Aramaic (during the 600 years it was a lingua franca), French (1066), Hebrew & Greek (biblical translation), Arabic (7 Crusades, Spanish Armada 1588 => Black Irish), Yiddish (in England prior to the Expulsion in 1290; 1840s from Germany, early 1900s from Eastern Europe), etc.

    A minority of idioms are the translation of foreign idioms. These are more difficult to analyze because one needs to know not only the language of the source but also the foreign language into which the transliteration (sic) was made, which may or may not be the same. Additional intermediate translations should not affect the result if they were faithful.

    A cute translation idiom is “count sheep !” to go to sleep. This is probably the translation of a Hebrew pun S’PoR TSo@N on the Latin phrase sopor (as in soporific) sond (as in soundly / deeply). This English idiom has been retranslated back into Israeli Hebrew as LiSPoR KeVeS = to count sheep.

    In a few cases, the “original” was a euphemism and not “plain text”. I suspect this is the case with “kick the bucket”. It seems to be the direct transliteration of a Semitic euphemism for dying: to make love in Paradise. Using 3 for aiyin with its ancient G/K-sound: 3aGaV = make physical love + B’3aiDeN = in Eden. 3G => Kick, vB3Dn => BucKeT.

    In other words, this type of idiom formation represents the target languag-ification of a foreign word or phrase. It can be most easily illustrated with a foreign phrase that did *not* become an idiom: Latin e pluribus unum = out of many, one. This is a motto of the USA. If it had become an idiom, it might have become “a flower bush you name” but would retain its original Latin meaning. It would probably acquire a folk etymology, such as: we could give a flower bush many names, but we usually give it only one.

    Transliteration idioms are most easily formed at a time when most target-language speakers do not read and write. They hear a foreign word/phrase, understand its meaning in context, and convert its sounds into target-language words they do know.

    For a rare modern example, “face the music” is attested in the United States from the 1840s. This “music” is probably from Yiddish MoSKoNeh = inference, deduction, hence, consequences, from Hebrew MaSKaNah with the same meaning.

    Etymology is not an exact science. The 3 etymologies that a non-linguist is most likely to “know” are all false. Muscle is not from Latin musculus = a small mouse. Sabotage is not from French sabot = an old shoe. And cabal is from Hebrew het-bet-lamed = to plot, scheme, not from Hebrew Kabbalah = esoteric knowledge, literally, received (tradition). Porcelain has nothing to do with a porcine vulva, and gossamer is from Latin Gossypium = cotton, not from goose + summer :-). But that is another story.

    For more examples of idiom etymologies, do a Google search for

    Best regards,
    Israel “izzy” Cohen

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