Quantcast
Merriam-Webster Logo
  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
  • Scrabble
  • Spanish Central
  • Learner's Dictionary
Words at Play

Kiss of Death, "Shibboleth," "Armageddon" & More

Top 10 Words from the Bible


Mispronouncing a word can be embarrassing; in this case, it could be fatal.

Shibboleth means "stream" in Hebrew. In the Book of Judges, following a great battle, Gileadite soldiers challenged suspected retreating Ephraimites to say it - because they knew their Ephraimite enemies could not pronounce sh. As the story goes, 42,000 Ephraimites failed the test and were killed.

Over the years, shibboleth has lost its danger.

Today, it usually describes a trite idea or platitude, or a slogan or catchword.

For example, in an article poking fun at contemporary food trends: "Words like seasonal, local and, best of all, green market were shibboleths for every self-respecting cook from potato peeler on up." (Time, Feb. 2010).

If this phrase sounds a bit campy, perhaps that's because it's been used as a title for film noir, heavy metal albums and vampire novels. But the original use was as serious as it gets.

That kiss of death was given by Judas to Jesus. It identified Jesus for the arresting soldiers who would send him to his crucifixion.

Today, kiss of death names something - an act or an association - that ultimately causes ruin.

For example: "The Treasury Department quickly shelved plans to publish the list [of banks receiving aid] so as to avoid giving the kiss of death to banks who are not on it." (New York Times, Oct. 2008)

A king dreamed, a prophet interpreted, a phrase was born.

Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylonia, dreamed of a huge statue with a head of gold, silver torso, bronze belly ... and feet of iron and clay.

The prophet Daniel deciphered the king's vision, observing that the feet of clay signified weakness. (Daniel 2:42)

Daniel's revelation gave feet of clay its current sense: a character flaw not readily apparent.

For example, as one blogger pointed out, "Like the rest of us, Tiger Woods has feet of clay."

A March 13, 2010 Wall Street Journal headline offered a nice play on "apple": "Forbidden Fruit: Microsoft Workers Hide Their iPhones."

Forbidden fruit names a pleasure that's immoral, illegal, or both.

In Genesis, God forbade Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The serpent tempted them, they couldn't resist, so God exiled them from paradise. And here we are today.

What was the fruit? The usual suspect is apple. In Latin, malus means both evil and apple tree. Other contenders include grapes, figs, quinces, and pomegranates.

top-10-words-from-the-bible-fig-leaf
Photo: Wikimedia

Back to Adam and Eve.

After eating the forbidden fruit, they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. (Genesis 3:7)

God wasn't fooled, of course - and today a fig leaf refers metaphorically to something that conceals or camouflages (usually inadequately or dishonestly).

Fig leaves can also be used more literally. For example, art restorers in Italy long ago discovered that fig leaves in paintings and sculptures aren't always original. Sometimes they were added, centuries later, to conceal offending nudity.

Good vs. Evil. The Final Battle. The Ultimate Conflict.

This story, still thrilling, is as old as Armageddon.

The word appears only once in the Bible ("Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon"-Revelation 16:16). Armageddon names the site (or time) of the conclusive battle between the forces of good and evil.

These days, the word can be applied to any vast decisive confrontation. For example, the battle over health care legislation was dubbed an Armageddon.

And of course the word's end-of-the-world implications can also be seen, winking, in winter storms labeled snowmageddon.

Thomas the Apostle claimed he wouldn't believe in the resurrection until he actually touched the wounds of Jesus.

Jesus understood Thomas' doubt and invited him to do just that. But according to the Gospel of John, Jesus also included this gentle rebuke: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. (John 20:29)

Either way, Thomas lost his doubt. But doubting Thomas came to name any incredulous or habitually doubtful person.

For example, consider the person on Twitter who confessed, "I am slowly turning into a doubting Thomas about social media."

It's a versatile phrase - that has been used to name, for example, both a faith-based rehab clinic and a book about religious views on homosexuality.

Here's what the Apostle Matthew wrote, quoting Jesus: strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life. (Matthew 7:14)

In other words, few take the challenging path to heaven - most choose a route filled with false prophets, which looks easier but ends in destruction.

Straight and narrow came to describe the rules of propriety and rectitude.

Some might say Matthew himself traveled both roads. Before he decided to follow Jesus, he was one of Herod's despised tax collectors.

"A good Samaritan was assaulted early Sunday morning ... after picking up a man whose truck had broken down." -The Paris [Tennessee] Post-Intelligencer, Mar. 2010

This is a sorry twist on the original episode.

In Luke 10:30-37, Jesus told a parable about a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead. Though the man was probably a Jew, a priest and a Levite hurried past. Only a Samaritan (a people who had hostile relations with Jews) stopped to help.

Good Samaritan now names someone who generously aids those in distress. Good Samaritan Laws protect persons who, in good faith, render emergency care.

Kingdom Come
Up Next
top-10-user-submitted-words-vol-7-fastrope

Fast-Rope, "Viewbicle," "Brandjack" & More

It's odd that kingdom come is often associated (sometimes humorously) with violent death.

For instance, as one blogger reported, "Turns out that in foiling a plot by the evil Nazi scientist Baron Zemo, Captain America's teenage sidekick was blown to kingdom come."

But the phrase comes from the Gospel of Matthew, which includes these words in The Lord's Prayer: Thy kingdom come,/Thy will be done ... (Matthew 6:10)

Kingdom come is heaven, or the next world - a place, one hopes, of absolute peace.




Seen and Heard