What does “By the skin of your teeth” mean? Here’s a quick and simple definition:
“By the skin of your teeth” is one of the odder English language idioms. It is certainly one that requires a great deal of context, and repetition, to understand. It is also a perfect example of what an idiom is–a phrase that does not make sense through an analysis of the words. Rather, a language speaker comes to understand what it means through reading and hearing it used in everyday speech.
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Meaning of “By the skin of your teeth”
The vagueness of its application is one of the reasons that it is so hard to learn how to use it. The origins (see below) complicate the meaning, but today it is commonly thought to originate from the fact that there is no skin on teeth. So, by saying something like I only hung on by the skin of my teeth, you are, in fact saying you came incredibly close to failing.
Origins of “By the skin of your teeth”
The phrase “by the skin of your teeth” or “my teeth” comes from the Bible. Specifically, it comes from Job 19″20 in the King James Version. It says, “My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.” There is an alternative version in the Geneva Bible that reads: “I have escaped with the skinne of my tethe.” In this original version, the phrase is referring to the advanced stage of Job’s disease and the fact that he’s left, metaphorically or not, with only his skull.” Since the lines have changed meaning to refer to a close call or a very narrow margin.
When to use “By the skin of your teeth”
“By the skin of your teeth” should be used when you’re talking about yourself, or someone else, who was very close to not accomplishing something that they wanted to accomplish. For example, if you’re talking about a job you wanted, you could say, “I was only hired by the skin of my teeth,” referring to how close you came to not being hired. The phrase is colloquial, meaning that it should only be used in informal speech between family and friends. It would be inappropriate, or at least unprofessional, to use it with someone like a manager or senior official of any kind.
Example Sentences with “By the skin of your teeth”
- “I can’t believe what I just saw. She only survived by the skin of her teeth.”
- “My mom was so angry. I only escaped being grounded by the skin of my teeth.”
- “Did you see how close that bus was? You only avoided getting hit by the skin of your teeth!”
Why Do Writers Use “By the skin of your teeth”
The phrase “by the skin of your teeth,” “my teeth,” or “his/her teeth” is used when a writer wants to convey a character’s relief. This might be for themselves or for someone else. It could be used as an exclamation or as a sigh of relief. The phase is very informal, as most idioms are and would therefore fit best in a passage of dialogue between friends, family members, or close colleagues. It should also be noted, again, like many idioms, that the phrase has become fairly cliche. Its meaning is so clear in English and used so often that its impact has been lessened. As a writer, it would likely be the smarter choice to seek out a new phrase or coin something more original.
- “A hair’s breadth away.”
- “A dime a dozen.”
- “Cutting corners.”
- “Cut somebody some slack.”
- “Miss the boat.”