The Web site for a Montréal auto dealership recently informed its readership that “Toyota est toujours numéro un, mais par la peau des fesses,” literally, “Toyota is still number one, but by the skin of its buttocks.”  In English, of course, we’d be more likely to say that “Toyota is still number one, but by the skin of its teeth” (or, if “Toyota” is to be taken as referring  to the company rather than the automobile, “by the skin of their teeth”—we assume that the reference here is not to the company’s eponymous founder, in which case we would say “by the skin of his teeth”). In any case, we may wonder which part of the human anatomy the skin of one’s teeth might actually be and where “by the skin of one’s teeth” in the sense of “just barely” came from in the first place. (Why it’s “teeth” in English and “buttocks” in French is a separate matter.)

There is general agreement that the expression “by the skin of one’s teeth” has its origin in the Book of Job (Job 19:20, to be exact). After that, things get a bit murky, because there has never been an agreed-upon, canonical “The” Book of Job, as the following sampling of English renderings of  Job 19:20 makes clear:

  • Whanne fleischis weren wastid, my boon cleuyde to my skyn; and oneli lippis ben left aboute my teeth. [Wycliffe 1382, the first translation of both the Old and New Testaments to appear in (Middle) English]
  • My bone hangeth to my skynne, and the flesh is awaye, only there is left me the skynne aboute my teth. [Coverdale 1535]
  • My bone cleaueth to my skinne and to my flesh, and I haue escaped with the skinne of my teeth. [Geneva 1560]
  • My bone cleaveth to my skinne, and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skinne of my teeth. [King James 1611]
  • The flesh being consumed, my bone hath cleaved to my skin, and nothing but lips are left about my teeth. [Douay-Rheims 1609]
  • My bones are joined to my skin, and I have got away with my flesh in my teeth. [Bible in Basic English 1949]
  • My bones cleave to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth. [New Oxford Annotated Bible (1965), which includes the note: “I have escaped by the skin of my teeth, an expression of proverbial origin which has received many different interpretations, all of which are hypothetical.”]
  • My bones stick out through my skina, and I gnaw my underlip with my teeth. (a Prob. rdg.; Heb. adds and my flesh) [The New English Bible (1970)]

So: one or more bones, some skin, some flesh (usually), teeth, and (sometimes) one or more lips. Where did all these body parts come from and how did they get assembled? Entering the realm of the less known in the hope of explaining the known (ignotus per ignotium), we can say that the earliest English translators relied in varying degrees on three main sources—in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin—and, after the Reformation, on Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible as well. The books you had at hand, your facility with the source languages, and to some extent the religious persuasion of your underwriter all influenced the end result.

Working backwards in time:

  • The Vulgate—St. Jerome’s late fourth-century (C.E.) translation into Latin from Hebrew and earlier Latin sources: Pelli meae, consumptis carnibus, adhaesit os meum, et derelicta sunt tantummodo labia circa dentes meos. (‘The flesh having wasted away, my bone sticks to my skin and only the lips around my teeth are left.’ It is fortuitous that the nominative singulars os ‘bone’ and ōs ‘mouth; the organ of speech, mouth, tongue, lips; face’ would have looked the same in Jerome’s time without the macron to distinguish them.)
  • The Septuagint, on which St. Jerome made a point of saying that he had not based his translation because of the many hands that had gone into writing and revising it since Ptolemy invited the apocryphal 72 translators (later rounded down to 70—septuaginta is Latin for ‘seventy’) to Alexandria towards the end of the third century B.C.E. to undertake to render the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek: εν δερματι μου εσαπησαν αι σαρκες μου τα δε οστα μου εν οδουσιν εχεται [en dermati mou esapēsan [h]ai sarkes mou ta de osta mou en odousin ekhestai] (‘My flesh has putrefied in my skin and my bones are held in teeth.’ Whose teeth? The usual guess is Job’s, but who knows?)
  • The Hebrew Tanakh—an acronym of the three component parts of the canonical Hebrew Bible, namely, Torah (‘Instruction’), Nevi’im (‘Prophets’), and Ketuvim (‘Writings,’ the section to which the Book of Job belongs):
    בעורי ובבשרי דבקה עצמי ואתמלטה בעור שני׃  [be’ori uvivsari davekah atsmi va’etmaletah be’or shinai] (‘My bone clings to my skin and to my flesh and I have escaped with the skin of my teeth.’)

Well, what to make of all this? Besides his skin and bones, what is Job left with? (Or, stretching it, since he still has several more chapters of suffering to go, what has he escaped with?) He can still speak coherently, Satan having been careful, according to some scholars, to guarantee that Job retain the ability to curse God, presumably with the full articulatory phonetic inventory of his native language, when he can’t take it any longer. But how much and which parts of his speech apparatus he still has has to remain a matter of conjecture, though the bottom line seems to be “not much, just enough.”