15

I've seen a pattern in a couple of titles.

  • Asimov has a book called "Through a Glass, Clearly".
  • Philip Dick wrote "A Scanner Darkly".
  • Star Trek has the episode "In a Mirror, Darkly"
  • Agatha Christy wrote the story "In a Glass, Darkly"

Curiously, 3 of the 4 are sci-fi. Any reason for the commonality of phrasing? Does it have some sort of meaning? Anyone know how it originated? Is it used in spoken English?

  • +1 ... even though I know where it comes from - see the mmyers answer - i've always wondered why it's considered so compelling. Can anyone add to the mmyers answer and explain? – hawbsl Oct 25 '10 at 23:15
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    @hawbsl: it's the imagery of seeing as if through an obstruction (or a mirror, depending on your particular translation), vs. seeing the real thing. It gets across a very complex idea in just a few words. (Which of course is the essence of poetry.) – Marthaª Oct 26 '10 at 14:08
  • Also, the English translation of Bergman's film, Through a Glass Darkly. – Charlie Oct 26 '10 at 19:57
  • It needs to be noted that the original is almost certainly "in/through a glass, darkly", and other forms of the expression were probably developed off of that, more or less tongue-in-cheek. – Hot Licks Sep 5 '17 at 23:10
  • The wording of the phrase originates in the 1560 Geneva Bible, not in the 1611 King James Version, as is widely believed. The KJV simply added a comma before the word 'darkly'. My answer details this and answers your additional questions. – green_ideas Sep 6 '17 at 16:11
18

It originates from 1 Corinthians 13:12:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

  • 1
    how do you know this is the actual origin? is it just the oldest written record of it? – Claudiu Oct 25 '10 at 17:33
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    I'd say 60 AD is very likely to be the oldest reference, yes :) Of course, it was the KJV in 1611 that translated it this way into English. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Through_a_Glass_Darkly_(disambiguation) for a larger list of works that borrow this phrase from this verse. – BradC Oct 25 '10 at 20:28
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    @Claudiu: Yes, it's the actual origin. If you were an educated person - or someone who'd attended a Protestant church - in the UK or USA between the early 1600s until the 1960s, chances were probably 99+% you'd at least heard that verse. And it's memorable because it's very poetic. – Bob Murphy Oct 25 '10 at 21:20
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    @Claudiu: I'd say it's just a case of the general biblic way of phrasing things strangely. Just look at en.wikisource.org/wiki/Bible_(King_James)/… - the "through a glass, darkly" doesn't stand out as being more uncommon than the rest of the text. I guess it's the combination of being 400yr old and being intentionally poetic. – Stefan Monov Oct 26 '10 at 5:29
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    Strangely, @mmyers (the poster) completely omitted the meaning of the verse and failed to respond the OP's very simple request: Is it used in spoken English? – Mari-Lou A Sep 6 '17 at 4:44
3

The phrase through a glass darkly originated in the 1560 Geneva Bible translation of The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, verse 12. But, the phrase's popularity correlates with the overwhelming influence on English through the centuries of the King James Version (KJV, 1611), which utilized the wording of the Geneva Bible here and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Geneva Bible has largely been forgotten.

The KJV was published in 1611 but it was highly dependent on a handful of English translations that preceded it, especially the 1560 Geneva Bible, which seems to be the first to translate 1 Corinthians 13:12 using through a glass darkly. A scan/replica of this edition is at archive.org complete with the title page indicating a 1560 date in Roman style: M.D.L.X. Here is a screen capture/grab of 1 Corinthians 13:11-13:

[<code>1560 Geneva Bible</code>]

Using modern spelling 1 Corinthians 13:12 of the Geneva Bible is

For now we see through a glass darkly: but then shall we see face to face. Now I know in part: but then shall I know even as I am known.

The italicised phrase shall we see represents text not found in the Greek manuscripts.

The Geneva Bible was a tremendously popular and influential translation, not in the least because it highly influenced the translators of the KJV. The Geneva Bible was the Bible of Shakespeare, John Bunyan and the Puritans, who brought a copy of it on the Mayflower. It was the first English version to be subdivided into verses. It also contained marginal notes. It was so popular it was reprinted every year from 1560 to 1616.

Nevertheless, the KJV (1611) went on to surpass even the Geneva Bible in popularity, usage, sales, and influence while the Geneva Bible has largely been forgotten. And undoubtedly it is the KJV that popularized the wording that the question asks about–even if it did not originate it. The comma that the KJV introduced is not vital to the phrase's lasting popular usage.

Early English translations of 1 Corinthians 13:12, in modernized spelling, include the following. Notice how the Geneva Bible (1560) differs from preceding versions and that the KJV echoes it rather than reverting to the oft-used rendering "in/through a glass in a dark speaking"1.

1394 - Wycliffe
And we see now by a mirror in darkness...

1531 Tyndale
Now we see in a glass even in a dark speaking...

1535 Coverdale
Now we see through a glass in a dark speaking...

1537 Matthew
Now we see in a glass even in a dark speaking...

1539 Great Bible
Now we see in a glass, even in a dark speaking...

1560 - Geneva Bible-
For now we see through a glass darkly...

1568 - Bishops' Bible
Now we see in a glass, even in a dark speaking...

1611 - King James
For now we see through a glass, darkly...

It means now we see in or through a glass/mirror in a dark or obscure manner. The phrase is not used in everyday spoken English. It is a literary phrase. As such, some folks may say it sparingly.


1 Speaking is a noun which has a separate entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, with uses back to c1275, that is, about 1275.

References include The Bible in Translation: Ancient and English Versions, Bruce Metzger, Princeton University and general works.

1

The other answer provided the etymology, as far as the meaning:

To see “through a glass” — a mirror — “darkly” is to have an obscure or imperfect vision of reality. The expression comes from the writings of the Apostle Paul; he explains that we do not now see clearly, but at the end of time, we will do so.

http://dictionary.com/browse/through-a-glass-darkly

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