Of Sackcloth and Ashes: How idioms originate

  • Post author:
  • Post category:Idioms
You are currently viewing Of Sackcloth and Ashes: How idioms originate
Chinese mourners wear sackcloth

This week I discovered a ‘delightful’ idiom in the novel Sophie’s Bakery for the Broken Hearted by New York Times Best Selling Author, Lolly Winston – sackcloth and ashes. I’ve read too far ahead to give you the context, but I made a mental note to make it the subject of my blog.

All the research indicates that wearing sackcloth and ashes is a sign of mourning, contrition or remorse – repentance for something you feel badly about.

Sackcloth and ashes defined by:

The Free Dictionary:  a display of extreme remorse or repentance or grief

Collins: a public display of extreme grief, remorse, or repentance

Merriam Webster: to publicly express or show sorrow or regret for having done something wrong

And its origins? According to pharases.org.uk, “It was an ancient Hebrew custom to wear sackcloth dusted with or accompanied by ashes as a sign of humbleness in religious ceremonies.” From “The Dictionary of Cliches” by James Rogers (Ballantine Books, New York, 1985).

Gotquestions.com explains: “Sackcloth and ashes were used in Old Testament times as a symbol of debasement, mourning, and/or repentance. Someone wanting to show his repentant heart would often wear sackcloth, sit in ashes, and put ashes on top of his head. Sackcloth was a coarse material usually made of black goat’s hair, making it quite uncomfortable to wear. The ashes signified desolation and ruin.

“When someone died, the act of putting on sackcloth showed heartfelt sorrow for the loss of that person. We see an example of this when David mourned the death of Abner, the commander of Saul’s army (2 Samuel 3:31). Jacob also demonstrated his grief by wearing sackcloth when he thought his son Joseph had been killed (Genesis 37:34). These instances of mourning for the dead mention sackcloth but not ashes.

Daily Bible Study provides the quotes:

“Then Jacob rent his garments, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days.” (Genesis 37:34 RSV) (see Coat Of Many Colors)

“Then David said to Joab and to all the people who were with him, “Rend your clothes, and gird on sackcloth, and mourn before Abner.” And King David followed the bier.” (2 Samuel 3:31 RSV)

In modern usage, the phrase is used more loosely. For example, Richard has been seen in nothing but sackcloth and ashes since his wife left him, which describes his emotional state.

For me, the meaning is literal. Sackcloth and ashes are all I’ll be able to afford if I continue to work for free and underquote my services!

Leave a Reply