Howard Adelman

There were two queries about Friday’s blog. Both, from different angles, were about the meaning of the expression, “by the skin of our (or your) teeth.” The essence of both comments claimed that the expression was nonsensical since teeth do not have skin. However, it is precisely because teeth are not covered by skin that the expression is such a terrific metaphor, even if, through overuse, the subtlety of the meaning is often lost.

Escaping a catastrophe by the skin of one’s teeth means an escape by the thinnest of margins, Further, the escape was without any costs or wounds to our flesh. The reason for the escape was not because of our own efforts, but by chance or happenstance. Luck saved us rather than effort. The result is that we can breathe a very large, “Whew!” The expression, “by the skin of our teeth,” conveys all of that. The margins of salvation were so close or thin that they could not even be seen. Further, the event was full of irony, for all along until the denouement, we may have been “gritting our teeth.” We were anticipating huge costs in the drama of the build up. But, in the end, there were no real costs comparatively. We could breathe a sigh of relief. The escape took place “in a flash,” almost out of nowhere. The whole scenario reversed itself.

In other situations, you may affirm your initiative and effort in escaping a disastrous situation. Instead of fate determining the result, your own ingenuity will. Confronting frustrating obstacles, you may assert that, “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” Leaving chance aside, in other circumstances there may be costs, even serious ones. But you do not have to pay those costs because you do not have a stake in what is taking place. There is no “skin off your back.” “There is no skin off my nose.” You or I escape without consequences, not because of chance when the anxiety level was very high, not because of relying on one’s own flexibility and inventiveness, but because the situation was a matter of indifference to you.

In the opposite circumstances, when you do have a great stake in the game, when the situation may be significant and impose large costs, and when, rather than being indifferent and rather than being able to rely on your personal ingenuity, you are confronted by a “banana skin,” by circumstances which are, at the very least, embarrassing and may, over the long run, be very costly, the circumstances are not of your own making, but placed in your way as you waltzed along and did not anticipate the situation in which you could slip up. On the other hand, in some situations, there is salvation rather than a crash. That salvation does not come by way of chance. Nor does a disaster come about because of an unanticipated barrier thrown your way. You are saved by a deliberate intervention by another who “saved your skin.” Your neck was rescued by the efforts of that Other.

“Skin” in these many expressions can have such opposite meanings. Instead of saving you, the Other may take advantage of you in a skin game, that is, cheat or swindle you. Or you may yourself become involved in a boiler operation or a skin game. But if you are the victim rather than the victimizer, the chances are that, when it’s over and you realize that you have been had, you may want to “skin someone alive.” Perhaps even more, for to skin someone alive, confusedly, does not mean killing them, but simply taking a “strip” off their “hide,” giving them a severe scolding or dressing them down. You are so angry that, although you might have murderous thoughts, your imagined actions entail only a burst of shouts. In the case of, “I could have skinned her alive,” you imagine an action to express how angry you feel.

But sometimes, when you are the one being skinned, you may not react with anger at the Other, but with rage at oneself, with disgust at your naiveté and how easily you were taken so that you feel like or may even actually “skin a goat,” that is, retch (doesn’t a goat when he or she is bleating sound like it is retching?) and vomit. When you consider yourself the prime cause of your own injuries in the short or long term, then you skin up. Not only have you f…ed up, but you have scraped your skin, or, much more seriously if you skin up over the years by smoking cigarettes, you may ruin your insides and initiate a cancer that may sometimes be terminal. You have really skinned up.

But whether you injure yourself or another, in assessing the fault line for the cause of your troubles, you may be given advice to “buck up” and also not to trust another. Sometimes one is offered advice not to rely on others, to be an independent agent and to rely only on oneself. Do your own dirty work, as the saying goes; “skin your own skunk.” Everyone is responsible for his or her own actions and neither chance, nor voluntary intervention, should determine the results.

And, of course, the original expression and its variations are paradoxical. For, on different occasions, you have “skin in the game.” There is a cost. In some contexts, the costs can even be measured, so getting by may cost a “couple of skins,” a few dollars. And when you buy a used car, you may get “skinned,” or overcharged. That is why a skinhead is not simply a person without hair on his scalp, someone who has shaved his head, but someone who deliberately removes that hair to demonstrate that in the most sensitive part of his body, the person is willing to engage in violence and risk suffering very serious wounds to his flesh. In fact, skinheads often accompany the shaving of their head with body piercings and tattoos to signal that willingness to bear the scars of the flesh, that, unlike the person who escapes by “the skin of their teeth,” they do not want to escape scrapes, but to encounter and even encourage them.

Skinheads have thin skin. If you have a “thik skin,” it means that insults run off you like light drops of rain. You are immune from being wounded by any defamatory remark. You do not escape wounds to the flesh by chance or luck and by the thinnest of margins, but by developing over the years a thick skin that it is very difficult to penetrate by biting words. In an opposite meaning, someone is sensitive to barbs if he allows those insults or certain types of behaviour to irritate and even “get under his skin.”

But you may escape a sense of personal injury for another reason – you have confidence in yourself and who you are. You do not feel hurt because you are insensitive, but because “you are comfortable in your skin.” However, if one is neither insensitive nor full of self-confidence, then many situations may frighten you, may make your skin or flesh crawl, and even make you “jump out of your skin.” In situations where you are dreadfully afflicted and may even lose a “ton of money,” then you may be described as having been “totally skinned.” On the other hand, rather than being an individual of supreme self-confidence, you may be a bluffer, a poseur, someone trying to convey confidence, strength and courage that you do really have and, therefore, only acting as an “ass in a lion’s skin.” You are simply a fool.

Some expressions or skin metaphors have no subtlety at all. You are “all skin and bones” simply means you are thin or “skinny.” If you are “soaked to the skin,” it means that rain has penetrated your protective layer of clothing. On the other hand, you may dismiss the powerful physical attraction of another person because they look exquisite but that does not really count since “beauty is only skin deep.” Beauty is superficial. What counts is character. And beauty is no revelation of character. There is another way to put down physical beauty and its power by actually denigrating it and relegating what you see as actually, or metaphorically, only a “skin flick.”

In this plethora of uses and associations, we are not getting to “the heart of the matter.” We are not getting “beneath the skin.” The situation can be described at a deeper level. Dabbling in and enjoying, though often crying and deploring, the surface of politics, the pursuit of position and power, the campaign to get elected, allows us to easily get caught up in the posturing and give and take that we see and observe. But there are the forces we do not see or even perceive, for the surface phenomena are only the eruptions of contending forces beneath.

So for the next while, I want to go beneath the skin, beneath the crust of the earth, and explain what is taking place in the grinding together and the gaps as forces push in different directions, towards or against the fault lines. But sometimes those forces overlap, one submerging the other beneath. In these areas of contention, I want to make an effort to understand the pressures at work of which the eruptions on the skin are only symptoms of the stresses and strains beneath the surface. But I will do so in a very specific time, 1947 after WWII, and in a very specific place, Palestine.


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