the writing is on the wall

To say that “the writing is on the wall,”means there are clear signs of doom or misfortune, visible to almost anyone. After two defeats in the ring, you might say the writing is on the wall for the boxer.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the expression originates from chapter 5 of the Old Testament Book of Daniel, which describes Belshazzar’s feast. Belshazzar, the ruler of Babylon, was indulging in a drunken revelry and debasing sacred temple vessels by using them as wine goblets when a disembodied hand wrote mene mene tekel upharsin on the palace wall.

The Jewish exile, Daniel, was called in to interpret this Aramaic writing. Daniel explained that it was wordplay, that the words meant that Belshazzar was about to lose control of his empire. The point of the story was that Belshazzar couldn’t see the warning that was apparent to others because he was engrossed with his sinning ways.

This phrase and the story all appeared in 1615 in one of the earliest English translations of the bible. Of course, the subtlety of the biblical wordplay is now somewhat lost on those of us who don’t speak ancient Aramaic.

“Writing on the wall” began to be used figuratively from the early 1700s. For example, from Jonathan Swift’s Miscellaneous works, 1720:

A baited Banker thus desponds,
From his own Hand foresees his Fall;
They have his Soul who have his Bonds;
‘Tis like the Writing on the Wall.

There is always much writing on my iMac’s wall. Fortunately, I can get rid of it and just gaze at the wallpaper. If I’m doomed, I don’t want to know about it!


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