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.
“To cast pearls before swine”
This famous phrase is a quote from Matthew’s Gospel: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs,” writes the Evangelist, “neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” This dramatic image—which of course gains extra power from the fact that pigs are considered unclean animals by orthodox Jews—became a favorite in the Middle Ages, first mentioned in English by William Langland in Piers Plowman in the fourteenth century. Charles Dickens used the phrase in his 1848 novel Dombey and Son, to mean “doing a thankless thing.” But the most famous occurrence, which gives a twist to the ancient meaning, is in a story about Dorothy Parker, the great American humorist of the 1920s. “Age before beauty,” said a cheeky young woman while holding a door open for Parker to pass. Quick as a flash Parker replied: “Pearls before swine.” Here are 10 phrases you have always used that are actually trademarked.