The Skinny on Noses vs. Teeth

Yesterday I heard someone who was trying to express the idea that a particular task was easy for certain people say of them, “it’s no skin off their teeth.”

This is of course a mash-up of “no skin off their noses” and “by the skin of their teeth.”

The American Dictionary of Idioms dates the expression “no skin off one’s nose”  to the early 1900s and speculates it may refer to boxing. It refers to something that doesn’t bother you, or that you don’t care about. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation is for 1911. It says the expression is “used to indicate that one is not offended or adversely affected by something.”

You’ll find plenty of sources citing Job 19:20 as the source of the old English expression “with the skin of his teeth” (now more commonly “by the skin of his teeth”); but the OED casts doubt on this derivation.

(Job 19:20), lit. ‘with the skin of my teeth’, thus in quot. 1560   a literalism of translation, which its use in the A.V. helped to make proverbial in English. However, the sense of the passage in Job is uncertain and disputed, as is the grammatical analysis and meaning of the Hebrew verb form immediately preceding the noun phrase; many recent commentators doubt that the Hebrew text offers any support for the notion of a ‘narrow escape’. The Vulgate and Septuagint render the passage differently (Vulgate: et derelicta sunt tantummodo labia circa dentes meos ‘only my lips are left around my teeth’; Septuagint: τὰ δὲ ὁστᾶ μου ἑν ὁδοῦσιν ἔχεται ‘my bones are held in my teeth’), the Septuagint apparently following an emendation of the Hebrew text.

“With” makes sense if you understand the phrase to express that you got away with essentially nothing: no meat between your teeth, just the skin attached to them.

All agree that it refers to making a narrow escape.

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