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If someone does something 'by the skin of their teeth', it means they just barely managed to do it. What is this idiom supposed to be referring to exactly, and how did it originate?

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Related No skin off my nose/teeth –  FumbleFingers Jul 22 '11 at 23:24
    
@Fumble: isn't that more than simply related? –  Alenanno Jul 23 '11 at 9:20
    
@Alenanno: Well no-one's voted to close this one as a dup. Your answer on the other gives the definition OP already knows here, but the focus there is on No skin off my nose anyway. I see nothing about how the meaning of By the skin of your teeth came about. Which I think is a bit trivial, but there you go. –  FumbleFingers Jul 23 '11 at 12:23
    
Besides this question asks also about the etymology, while the other one not. –  Theta30 Jul 23 '11 at 13:18
    
Related: "Finer than frog hair" –  TecBrat Jul 19 at 1:48

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Because (of course) your teeth don't have skin, the expression

by the skin of your teeth

suggests 'by the smallest possible margin'.

This reference claims an origin in The Geneva Bible 1560.

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"Teeth" is a person's final fighting weapon. (After one's arms, legs, etc. have been injured, tied up, or otherwise put out of action.)

To survive by the skin of one's teeth" (which have no skin), means that a person's last weapon was not broken or put out of action, and that there was still some "fight" left in the person when the enemy or danger somehow disappeared.

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Can you provide any citation for this claim? –  choster Jul 19 at 1:48
    
In "The Battle For Stalingrad," General Chuikov related how badly injured, "diehard" Soviet soldiers would pull grenade pins using their teeth, then "throw" them at the enemy with their remaining arms or legs. –  Tom Au Jul 19 at 1:55

The origin is a quote from the Bible. Job, a pious man, was tested by the god. He lost family, friends, money and health. At the end, he still kept the faith. He escaped, but remained with nothing. In this sense, he escaped with "the skin of his teeth", since the teeth do not have skin.
(source consulted: Carnal knowledge, C.Hodgson )

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That's not quite the modern meaning, though, is it? The modern meaning is 'just barely', rather than 'coming through something and having nothing afterwards'. –  Jez Jul 23 '11 at 8:27
    
you are right Jez –  Theta30 Jul 24 '11 at 5:44
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The verse is Job 19:20. Some translations have him escaping with the skin of his teeth, others by the skin of his teeth. –  Nate Eldredge Jan 3 '12 at 17:03

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