If you read the newspapers or watch the news on television, you couldn’t have avoided hearing, probably more than once, the expression “of biblical proportions” in connection with the Asian tsunami. “A disaster of biblical proportions,” the New York Daily News reported. “A humanitarian crisis of biblical proportions,” the Washington Post declared. “A tragedy of biblical proportions,” the Los Angeles Times quoted an international aid organization executive as saying. “Television commentators,” The Boston Globe told its readers, “refer to the disaster as being of ‘biblical proportions’ for the way it swallowed up whole towns and villages with complete indifference.” But first off the mark was CNN, which was thus describing a tsunami even before last month’s tidal wave hit, warning in August 2001 that the world’s coastlines are “under threat from a monster wave of Hollywood — even biblical — proportions.”
The Boston Globe’s gloss of the expression is a strange one, given the fact that “complete indifference” never accompanies actual or threatened catastrophes in the Bible, which are always the work of an angry God. Indeed, if the Bible has one overarching message, it is that nothing ever happens “indifferently’ in a world in which everything is a reflection of God’s will.
Nevertheless, “of biblical proportions” has become a cliché in recent years for almost any massively destructive event. AIDS? “A plague of biblical proportions,” the San Diego Union-Tribune called it in August 2004. Locusts? “A crisis of biblical proportions,” aid worker Karen Homer told the BBC in Mauritania that same month. Volcanoes? The next time Vesuvius blows, according to a recent report out of Naples, Italy, “700,000 persons ought to be prepared for an evacuation of biblical proportions.” War? “A horror of biblical proportions,” former secretary of state Madeleine Albright said of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo in 1999.
The phrase, in fact, has escaped the domain of the massively destructive and now can be applied to just about anything. Western textile manufacturers meeting in Brussels, Germany, a news item informed us last month, have warned that the end to quotas on clothing from developing countries “represents a crisis of biblical proportions.” Small coffee farmers in Mexico, a trade journal reports, face “afflictions of biblical proportions.” John Kerry’s attack on George W. Bush’s military record, a newspaper columnist said, was “a political smear of biblical proportions.” The growth of student travel, as chronicled by an article titled “A Brief History of the Student Travel Industry,” reached “a watershed of biblical proportions” in 1975. The New York Rangers’s poor showing in the National Hockey League, we were told by a sportswriter, is “a curse of biblical proportions.” Seattle professor of history Bill Woodward, according to the Seattle Pacific University Magazine, has been lecturing on his favorite topic, “Baseball in America: An Epic of Biblical Proportions.”
Although “proportions” is by far and away the word most coupled with “biblical” when the latter is used in nonbiblical contexts to mean “colossal,” it is not the only one. “Biblical magnitude,” “biblical size,” “biblical scale,” etc., are all expressions one encounters nowadays, and I recently came across a description of a cheap paperback thriller as a novel with characters of “biblical stature.” This is why the fourth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language, published in 2000, adds a third definition to the two that can be found in the third or 1992 edition, namely, “Very great in extent; enormous.” There definitely would seem to be a trend at work. The day might not be far off when we shall hear of an actress’s “biblical beauty,” a weightlifter’s “biblical strength” and a washing machine’s “biblical performance.”
Did I say the day is not far off? It’s already upon us. Writing in the February 28, 2000, issue of Electronic News, reporter Peter Brown announces “a processor of biblical proportions” and relates, “VIA Technologies Inc. last week took the wraps off its first x86 microprocessor.” But perhaps we’re celebrating prematurely, for the context is not entirely nonbiblical, as Mr. Brown goes on to explain by observing, with truly biblical ignorance, “The VIA Crix III microprocessor [was] formerly named Joshua, after a chapter [sic!] in the New Testament [sic!] of the Bible.”
How far back does “of biblical proportions” go? A quick search on Google — a more thorough one would involve examining every one of the 271,000 entries listed for the expression — turns up a hit from 1980 (“flies descended in plagues of biblical proportions,” from Erik de Mauny’s Return to Oasis, a memoir of a New Zealand soldier in the Egyptian desert in World War II), and another from 1950 (“two hundred men who wish for nothing more than to have enough to eat and then move on — a swarm of locusts of almost biblical proportions,” from Toni Hagen’s “The Ring of Buddha-Diary”). On the other hand, Cassell’s etymology dictionary gives the earliest use of “biblical” in the sense of “huge” as occurring in William Langland’s “Piers Ploughman,” written in the second half of the 14th century. A wonderful poem, “Piers Ploughman” — or so I remember it from an English literature course that I took a biblically long time ago.