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The writing's on the wall

Posted by Bruce Kahl on October 18, 2003

In Reply to: The writing's on the wall posted by Lotg on October 18, 2003

: I used ths term myself yesterday, and as I did, wondered about it origin. I know it means a sense of inevitability, in a negative way. But how did the term come about?

From the Word Detective:

"Loose Cannons and Red Herrings: A Book of Lost Metaphors," by lexicographer Robert Claiborne, is a fascinating exploration of the original meanings of everyday words and phrases. "Math," for instance, was at one time the term for mowing crops, and the "aftermath" was the grass that grew back in the now-vacant field.

According to Mr. Claiborne, "the handwriting on the wall" goes all the way back to the Bible, specifically the fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel. It seems that Belshazzar, the King of Babylon, was having a major blowout, a fabulous feast for all his noble friends. Unfortunately, the King and his pals were also doing some serious blaspheming, drinking from sacred vessels stolen from the Temple in Jerusalem and worshipping heathen idols to beat the band. Suddenly a mysterious disembodied hand appeared and began writing a curious message ("Mene, mene, tekel, parsin," to be precise) on the wall of the palace that neither the King nor his cohorts could read. But Daniel could, and he informed the sinful King that it meant that a divine reckoning was afoot and that his hours in power were numbered, which turned out to be true. So to be "able to read the handwriting on the wall" has ever since been a metaphor for being able to see what's coming, especially when those around you remain in the dark.

See also: the meaning and origin of the phrase 'to beat the band'.

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