“A drop in the bucket”
Stuck between the mighty pharaohs on one side, and a succession of great Mesopotamian empires on the other, Israel was always destined to be a small fish in a big and dangerous pond. By the middle of the sixth century BC, the Jewish kingdoms had been conquered repeatedly, and a decent chunk of the population was living in painful exile in Babylon. Amid all this geopolitical gloom, the Book of Isaiah had some words of comfort. Compared to God, says the prophet, “the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance.” These days, in keeping with the modern enthusiasm for “super-sizing,” the “bucket” is often replaced with the “ocean.” Also in today’s modern time, we should definitely bring them back these 10 beautiful words.
In the Book of Exodus, Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt to escape from the tyrannical pharaoh and find the Promised Land. They follow him eagerly enough at first, but it soon becomes clear that the journey will be far from straightforward. As geography students will remember, between Egypt and Israel lies the barren wasteland of the Sinai Desert. It isn’t long before Moses’ flock start complaining: “Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt,” they moan, “when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full.” “Flesh pots,” in this passage, means exactly what it sounds like: pots in which you cook flesh. But the fleshpots of Egypt became a popular metaphor for any luxurious scene imagined with regret or disapproval. Gradually, the Egyptian reference dropped away—in 1710, Jonathan Swift writes of the “fleshpots of Cavan Street”— until fleshpot became an all-purpose word for anywhere that was particularly alluring. These days a “fleshpot” can be anything from a casino in Las Vegas to a London nightclub. Did you know that each state in the country has its own slang words?
The behemoth is a mysterious animal mentioned in the Book of Job. With bones “like bars of iron” and a tail “like a cedar,” this mighty beast was said to be able to suck the whole River Jordan into its mouth. Biblical scholars have long debated whether the behemoth is a mythical creature or just an exaggerated description of an ordinary animal (the most popular candidate is a hippopotamus). This is what English words would look like without classical origins. Whatever the original “behemoth” may have been, the name has become a metaphor for anything that reaches spectacular size. This figurative use is first recorded in a pamphlet of 1593, written by Gabriel Harvey as part of his vicious literary feud with Thomas Nashe. Nashe, writes Harvey, is “a Behemoth of conceit,” but “a shrimp in wit, a periwinkle in art, a dandiprat in industry,” and “a dodkin in value.”