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October 12, 2009 12:41 PM   Subscribe

Is it "writing on the wall" or "handwriting on the wall"? When / how did it change in popular usage?

Since my childhood I've been used to hearing the idiom "writing on the wall" to describe a portent of doom. It seems like just in the last few years I've heard the variation "handwriting on the wall" and stopped hearing "writing on the wall" entirely. I've deduced from searching online that they're interchangeable and the idiom comes from the Bible, so it is subject to different translations, obviously. Has anyone else noticed this shift? Is there a definite reason why "hand" would be appended to the expression in the last few years?
posted by l33tpolicywonk to Writing & Language (24 answers total)
 
Not an answer, but I wonder if people are saying "Handwriting on the wall", or if they are saying "Hand writing on the wall".
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 12:44 PM on October 12, 2009


Has anyone else noticed this shift? Is there a definite reason why "hand" would be appended to the expression in the last few years?

Well, speculating... it's only in the last couple of centuries that there has been any other kind of writing than that done by hand. Gutenberg etc.

Also it's only in the past couple of decades that people have started to struggle with a distinction between "printing" (block) letters and "handwriting" (cursive).

"Writing on the wall" is the one that rings correct for me, though I've also seen the other one lately.
posted by rokusan at 12:47 PM on October 12, 2009


I haven't noticed a shift, personally. When comparing the popularity of phrases like this, I turn to the (completely unscientific) Google Fight. According to this, "writing on the wall" is still the most common use, by a long shot.

I also ran "hand writing" in a fight and it still lost. My methods undoubtedly leave much to be desired. :-)
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 12:48 PM on October 12, 2009


The original usage is from the Bible, Daniel Chapter 5. God writes on the wall, "Mene mene tikkel upharsin" which means "I have weighed you in the balance and found you wanting." It's directed at the king.

Looking it up in Wikipedia gives a good overview.
posted by eleslie at 12:52 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


I've never heard someone say "handwriting on the wall" and I think I might laugh at the person if it ever happened.
posted by xmutex at 1:02 PM on October 12, 2009


Response by poster: Since there's some skepticism, I guess I should come back in to cite my most recent example of "handwriting on the wall": This American Life this week, where Susan Dentzer of the journal Health Affairs says it of the insurance industry. This certainly isn't the first time I've heard it, though: in fact, I can't remember a recent example of someone saying just "writing on the wall."
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:05 PM on October 12, 2009


I've heard three versions:

"I've seen the writing on the wall"
"I've seen the handwriting on the wall"
"The writing is on the wall."

I've never seen "the handwriting is on the wall."
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:08 PM on October 12, 2009


Best answer: The Biblical vision is, in fact, of a hand, writing on the wall. Therefore, to perceive doom is to either see "the writing on the wall" (the words themselves) or "the hand writing on the wall" (the hand as it forms the words).

My guess is that anyone who talks about seeing "the handwriting on the wall" has heard about "the hand writing on the wall" but is lacking in their Biblical metaphor education.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:16 PM on October 12, 2009 [4 favorites]


Possibly a little off topic, but the most memorable (for me) use of this expression is in Fitzgerald's sublime translation of the Rubiyyat of Omar Khayyam, which totally renders the concept:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it


Doesn't solve the query "handwriting/writing", of course, but it's so goosebumps moving that it's a pity to pass up an occasion to quote it.
posted by aqsakal at 1:19 PM on October 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Best answer: I have noticed this too, though I can only recall hearing it from the mouths of pundits.

Speculation: The people who know handwriting on the wall is wrong also know that simply using such a lame cliché, rightly or wrongly, is the mark of an unskilled speaker. Hence, dummies keep handwriting alive while writing dies off.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:19 PM on October 12, 2009 [3 favorites]


Response by poster: Faint of Butt: My guess is that anyone who talks about seeing "the handwriting on the wall" has heard about "the hand writing on the wall" but is lacking in their Biblical metaphor education.

As was I.

Sys Rq: Speculation: The people who know handwriting on the wall is wrong also know that simply using such a lame cliché, rightly or wrongly, is the mark of an unskilled speaker. Hence, dummies keep handwriting alive while writing dies off.

I'll buy that too. Thanks everybody!
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:35 PM on October 12, 2009


I don't think I've ever heard the word 'handwriting' in this context here in the UK. Is it possible this is just a newish US-only thing?
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 1:35 PM on October 12, 2009


Response by poster: le morte de bea arthur: I don't think I've ever heard the word 'handwriting' in this context here in the UK. Is it possible this is just a newish US-only thing?

OED says "handwriting" as one word was first used by Edmund Burke in 1783.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:40 PM on October 12, 2009


My guess is that anyone who talks about seeing "the handwriting on the wall" has heard about "the hand writing on the wall" but is lacking in their Biblical metaphor education.

I think I'm about as well educated in Biblical metaphor as anyone on MeFi and very familiar with the story in Daniel. Yet I've always heard "the handwriting is on the wall."

I don't see how that interpretation of the saying conflicts at all with the Biblical story. Wouldn't a hand writing on a wall leave "handwriting on the wall?"
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:04 PM on October 12, 2009


OED says "handwriting" as one word was first used by Edmund Burke in 1783

I wasn't talking about the word itself; I was talking about its use in the context given in your question. Let me rephrase it: I haven't heard the phrase "handwriting on the wall" used at all in the UK, but I have heard the phrase "writing on the wall" used frequently.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:15 PM on October 12, 2009


Best answer: After some searching:

There are plenty of other references to "handwriting on the wall" among the Biblically educated. Like the title of David Jeremiah's book about interpreting prophecies in Daniel. (A completely wrong-headed book, but not for lack of familiarity with the text.)

It turns out that the same man who wrote the hymn "Bringing in the Sheaves" (which you may remember from Little House on the Prairie), wrote another called "The Handwriting on the Wall." And then there is this line from Harvard scholar James Kugel (who does know what he is talking about)

Or--and this is significant--the subject line at the top of this page from Daniel in an old version of the King James' Bible.

How about these Sunday School lessons from 1898? Or the title of this article from The Literary and Theological Journal in April 1861. And the 1927 Bible Story Book includes "The Strange Handwriting on the Wall of the Palace." And Roy Pearson, the dean of Andover Newton Theological School wrote an article in 1961 call "Handwriting on the Wall" predicting the continuing decline of Christianity in Europe.

It clear to me (and I know from my own experience) that "handwriting on the wall" is a familiar way of referring to the story in Christian circles, and it obviously had currency in the 19th century, appearing as the title of at least one hymn and the subject heading in (at least) some version of the KJV.

As much as I appreciate Faint of Butt, I think he got it precisely backward. If anything, greater familiarity with Christian culture would lead one to be more familiar with the "handwriting" version of the idiom, and perhaps to prefer it.

If, like me, you were raised in a denomination that was formed in the early 19th century and then became a hymnal collector, it might be about the only way you encounter the saying.

And we can definitively say that "hand" has not been appended in the last few years. It's at least 200 years old, probably older, in that form
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:38 PM on October 12, 2009 [2 favorites]


By the way, I say "at least 200 years old" because Google Books has that King James reference dated to 1810.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 2:42 PM on October 12, 2009


Move that back another 100 years. Here's "The nature, guilt, and danger of presumptuous sins: set forth, in a sermon, preached before the University of Oxford, at St. Mary's, Sept. 14th, 1707 by Henry Sacheverell, M.A., Fellow of Magdalen College." On page nine, we read:

"Prosperity and Success should make Us Naturally remember the Kind Benefactor; and Distress and Affliction, Whet, and Sharpen the Soul, Roule and Awake a Stupify'd and Lethargick Conscience, and, like the Handwriting on the Wall, Strike Terror, Astonishment and Remorse even unto a Belshazzar, carousing in the Midst of Wine, Women and Banquets."

That's the oldest reference I can find via Google--again, obviously, from a very Biblically literate Christian.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:03 PM on October 12, 2009


I grew up always hearing "writing". When I got to college (long time ago) my best professor said "handwriting," which was the first I'd ever heard it said that way. It made me wonder if I had had it wrong all that time. Maybe there are regional preferences, or cultural, or class, or generational, etc.
posted by Askr at 4:16 PM on October 12, 2009


I don't think Faint of Butt was speaking specifically about the Christian community, Pater, since it is not the only community that uses the Bible, and this part in particular (though your sleuthing is great!).
posted by ocherdraco at 4:48 PM on October 12, 2009


ocherdraco--I'm just disagreeing with the idea that people who hear or say "handwriting" is "lacking in the Biblical metaphor education" since hymnists, translators, commentators and Bible scholars can all be found using that phrasing. And Sys Rq is, in this instance, just wrong about "the handwriting on the wall" being wrong. For one, it would be hard to make the case that some idioms are inherently wrong, even if they've shifted from their original context. But more fundamentally, "the handwriting on the wall" is a perfectly natural way to reference this story, and a reasonably common one.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 5:11 PM on October 12, 2009


PA: There are invisible quotes around "know" and "wrong" in my earlier comment.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:14 PM on October 12, 2009


Pater Aletheias wins the thread, thoroughly and decisively. Clearly I am lacking in my Biblical metaphor education. What's my penance, Father?
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:55 PM on October 12, 2009


Another anecdata point, to make this thread comprehensive: In 1971 David Bowie covered "Fill Your Heart," which includes the line:

Free, yeah, the writing's on the wall.

posted by fiercecupcake at 7:18 AM on October 13, 2009


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