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.”
The Book of Leviticus describes the proper ceremonies to be observed on the Jewish Day of Atonement, when the land of Israel would be ritually cleansed of its sins. The procedure was that one goat would be offered to God as a sacrifice, while the other—the “scapegoat”—would be symbolically loaded with all the misdeeds of the nation before being driven into the wilderness. This ceremony was said to have been carried out each year since the Exodus from Egypt. It did, however, acquire one important modification after an unfortunate incident in which the scapegoat wandered out of the wilderness and merrily back towards Jerusalem. To prevent a repeat of this extremely bad omen, subsequent priests arranged that the scapegoat’s journey to the wilderness should start with a headlong plunge down a local cliff. After that, scapegoats became significantly less mobile. We bet you had no idea these 22 words and phrases originated in the military.