skin of one’s teeth

To escape by the skin of one’s teeth is to narrowly avoid some hazard. It’s an odd phrase because, of course, teeth don’t have skin; it makes no literal sense.

The phrase comes from the Bible, specifically Job 19:20. It’s a direct translation of the original Hebrew. The first English translation to render it thus is the Geneva Bible of 1560:

I haue escaped with the skinne of my tethe.

Earlier translations from the Hebrew translated it differently in an attempt to make literal sense. The Vulgate, for example, renders it as “labia circa dentes meos” or lips around my teeth.

The Hebrew text could have been poetic way of saying the teeth’s enamel. Or, and perhaps more likely, it was intended as hyperbole. The skin of the teeth is so narrow as to be almost nonexistent, nothing more than a film of saliva. So to escape by it is a narrow escape indeed.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Internet Sacred Text Archive)

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