What is the Oldest Known Idiom?

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


I’m reading The Fine Print, by David Cay Johnston, right now, and early in the book he shares this anecdote about the treatment of debt in the Code of Hammurabi:

If you could not repay a debt because of circumstances beyond your control, such as a hailstorm flattening a field of grain, you could be excused from your debt—this amounted to an early form of bankruptcy protection. The clay tablet that recorded your debt could be washed, giving you a “clean slate,” a term we use to this day to describe unpaid debts that are forgiven.

This got me wondering: what’s the oldest source for an idiom still in common use? This one comes from about 1800 BC, so it’s certainly in the running. Any other candidates?

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

payment methods

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate