“By the skin of your teeth” first appeared in the Geneva Bible, 1560. When Job loses all he had, he exclaims,’I have escaped with the skinne of my tethe’ (Job 19:20), literally translated from original Hebrew. In other words, all he has left is the skin of his teeth.
Essentially, “By the skin of your teeth” means ‘barely’ or ‘narrowly’ managing to complete something. When used in writing, it ought to express that you got something done but were so close to almost failing and are quite relieved to have accomplished it.
Regardless of its ancient roots, the phrase didn’t become popular until the nineteenth century. The expression has still kept its original meaning of ‘narrow escape’. “The Skin of Our Teeth” was used as the title of a play by Thorton Wilder, involving a metaphor of the way mankind survives that achieved the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1943.
If you have accomplished something “by the skin of your teeth”, you might have been afraid about whether you would have accomplished it or not, or been under pressure to complete the task and getting it done provided a big relief.
As a way of saying that you only just got by, “by the skin of my teeth” is just one of the many idioms familiar to native English speakers. To many non-natives, though, the phrase may be somewhat puzzling. An idiom is a word or phrase whose meaning is not taken literally. Many idioms are generally used in writing and speaking, however, they cannot be understood just by looking at the individual words, because they have another meaning of their own. This idiom is one that calls for broad context and repetition to really understand it. Initially, it is easy to say that the phrase itself does not make sense. It may require getting used to it in order to get the meaning of the whole idea it is used in.
Meaning Of “By The Skin Of Your Teeth”
It may be difficult to think of using this term due to the ambiguity of its application and to actually know in what situations to use it. The inception of it complicates the meaning, but nowadays it is usually believed to have originated from the fact that there is no skin on teeth. The writer may also be referring to the surface of the teeth and the smallest possible unit of measure. Consequently, by saying something along the lines of ‘I only passed the test by the skin of my teeth’, you are implying that you were so close to not passing the test or that you only succeeded in doing it by the same amount as the thickness of that skin.
Origins Of “By The Skin Of Your Teeth”
Some people think that the phrase was originally referring to a coat of ‘skin’ over your teeth. If this were true, it would have to be an extremely thin layer since we can’t feel it or see it. Hence, this skin on your teeth would mean the tiniest measurement to escape by. This is only one of those tales, but the true origin of “By The Skin Of Your Teeth” goes back to the Bible.
Let’s check out three different Bible versions and their way of putting “By The Skin Of Your Teeth”.
- Job 19:20 (New International Version): “I am nothing but skin and bones; I have escaped only by the skin of my teeth.”
- Job 19:20 (King James Version): “My bone cleaveth to my skin and to my flesh, and I escaped with the skin of my teeth.”
- Job 19:20 (Complete Jewish Bible): “My bones stick to my skin and flesh; I have escaped by the skin of my teeth.”
Job was a devoted man. He was tested by God who gave Satan permission to distress him physically. His body was being consumed by illness and he literally became skin and bones. He eventually lost his family, friends, possessions and health, but he never lost his faith. Job did not mean that he had only managed to escape from a situation; what he meant was that the only thing he had escaped with was the skin of his teeth. He was able to escape, but with nothing. In this original version, the idiom is used to describe Job’s advanced stage of illness and the fact that he is left with nothing but his skull, figuratively or not. The proper reading of this idiom is: “My skin and flesh cling to my bones, and I am left with (only) my skull.” Since then, the meaning of “By the skin of my teeth” is used to indicate closeness or an extremely small margin from not succeeding in something.
When To Use “By The Skin Of Your Teeth”
“By the skin of your teeth” could be applied when talking about yourself, or someone else, who almost did not achieve something they wanted to achieve. For example, if you are talking about a flash sale at a store that was almost finished, you could say, “I was able to buy the shoes half- price by the skin of my teeth”, inferring that you almost didn’t get them on sale.
It is also important to know that the phrase is mostly casual, therefore, it should only be used in colloquial speech between family, friends, or close workmates. It wouldn’t be suitable, or professional for that matter, to use it in a work environment with a manager, chief official or for academic papers, among other similar documents.
Example Sentences With “By The Skin Of Your Teeth”
- “Wow! I don’t know how that was possible. They were only able to remove him from the loose lion’s sight by the skin of his teeth.”
- “You were so close to missing that train. You only hopped on by the skin of your teeth!”
- “I turned in the project on time by the skin of my teeth; this deserves a celebration tonight.”
- “I missed getting my car scratched today by the skin of my teeth.”
- “Ah! We were able to pull the dogs apart before anyone got hurt by the skin of our teeth.”
- “Contradictory as it seems, Austin Dillon dominated Saturday’s race in NASCAR’s second-tier Xfinity Series yet won the race by the skin of his teeth.” –LA Times
- “He made the final cut off list of the university by the skin of his teeth.”
- “My mom was really upset. I only escaped being punished by the skin of my teeth.”
- “We escaped the raging rioters by the skin of our teeth.”
Example Sentences According To Different Scenarios
- “After the criminal robbed the bank, he avoided the police. We had him surrounded, but he slipped past us by the skin of his teeth. Don’t worry, we are still tailing him.”
- The rock climber climbed to reach the top of the mountain but slipped before he reached the summit. “I slipped just at the edge when I was climbing up. I grabbed a rock and was saved by the skin of my teeth.”
- “The team went three goals up in their cup final match and thought they would win until the rival scored two late goals. I was so anxious in those last few minutes, but we held on by the skin of our teeth for the win.”
- The interviewers had to pick between two candidates. “I prefer this guy. I think he clinches it by the skin of his teeth because of his background experience.”
- The manager expected his team to have the presentation ready for Friday morning. “We’ve worked really hard on this for weeks, boss, and we just got it finished by the skin of our teeth.”
- With the company in transition, the staff needed to take some important initiatives for a couple of weeks. “When I took the meeting with those clients, I was nervous. But everything went well, and I was successful, although just by the skin of my teeth.”
Why Do Writers Use “By The Skin Of Your Teeth”
In the case of writers, the idiom “By the skin of your teeth”, “my teeth”, or “his/her teeth”, is applied when the writer wants to deliver a message of relief of the character. It doesn’t necessarily have to be for themselves; it can be for someone else as well. It is not uncommon that it is used as an exclamation or cry of relief. In very native English language settings, the phrase has reached a cliche status and it is not considered so impressive anymore. In order to portray originality in a writing piece, writers should consider a more unique phrase that will express something similar.
- “Miss the boat”
- “Cutting corners”
- “A dime a dozen“
- “A hair’s breadth away”
- “As small as the hairs on a gnat’s bollocks”
- “By very slim odds”
To do something “by the skin on one’s teeth”, in conclusion, is to have achieved it but could have easily missed it as well. Hopefully, you now have connected with the idea of what this phrase means. Are there any similar idioms in your country? Now you can compare and contrast and see which one better conveys the “barely made it” message.
Shawn Manaher is the founder and CEO of The Content Authority. He’s one part content manager, one part writing ninja organizer, and two parts leader of top content creators. You don’t even want to know what he calls pancakes.