As Old as…

Unlike its linguistic cousin the metaphor, the simile is an analogy in which two similar somethings are compared by way of the prepositions like or as (say, sleep like a log, fit like a glove, white as a ghost, nutty as a fruitcake).  When it comes to age, the three “as old as” similes that follow – two dating from Biblical times and one as young as a spring chicken* – seem to be the only ones currently used by English speakers in North America. Said similes are…

as old as Methuselah

All we know about Methuselah is from Genesis 5: 21–27 (where he is one of the begatees/begators) is that he was 187 when his son Lemec was born and that he died at age 696 seven day’s before Noah’s Flood. And Methuselah was hardly the only man to live hundreds of years. Among the other multi-centenarians in the Book of Genesis were these four:

  • Noah  950 years old
  • Adam  930 years old
  • Seth (Adam’s son)  912 years old
  • Shem (Noah’s son)  600 years old

Abraham and Moses were babes in the wood next to their antecedents, living only to 175 and 120.

Though Methuselah’s age-old reign as the semantic “as-old-as king” began to wane in the 1920s, the phrase he inspired clings to life some five millennia after the man himself died.

as old as the hills

A bible also gave birth to this phrase, but said good book wasn’t the King  James Version (1511, 1769, 1833, 2005). It came from the Coverdale Bible (1535) and read, “Art thou the first man, that euer [ever] was borne? Or, wast thou made before the hylles?” A century later, one of the first figurative uses of the expression appeared in A Defense of the Ancient Historians, by Francis Hutchinson: “As vales are as old as the hills, so loughs [lochs] and rivers must be as old as they.”

And who, pray tell, was this Coverdale? Myles Coverdale (1448–1569), an Augustine friar who became Bishop of Exeter. He furthered the work of William Tyndale** by compiling the first complete, two-testament English Bible ever printed.

as old as dirt

This Made in America expression was first used in the mid-1960s, leveled off in the ’70s, then shot up like a rocket in the ’80s. And the ever more popular phrase raises a question: Just how old is dirt?

The soil beneath our feet began to form some 2 million years ago, when glaciers advanced from the poles at a glacial pace, ground rocks into sand, and the sand joined rotting plant matter to form soil. But that’s mere baby-dirt next to the oldest soil of all – that which formed sedimentary rock some 4 billion years ago after land emerged from the evaporating primeval ocean. So when you describe someone as “old as dirt,” you are saying he’s as old as old can get… old-old-old in spades. Dig?

*A spring lamb is an especially young animal, and nineteenth-century restaurateurs borrowed the spring and applied it to chicken in an effort to suggest the meat of their birds was young, tender, and juicy. The term “she [and later, he] is no spring chicken” came into use in the early 1900s, and today spring chicken = a young person.

** William Tyndale (1490–15360) was a scholar and passionate Protestant reformer. His Tyndale Bible (1526) was not only the first drawn from Hebrew and Greek texts but also was the first New Testament to be printed.

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