Monday, July 6, 2009

mess of pottage

Perhaps some people are familiar with “Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.” This ‘mess of pottage’ showed in three protestant english bibles, two generations, before the authorised version (KJV). In the last three centuries those were not commonly read. Yet, some people may recognise ‘mess of pottage’. Bergen Evans edited a Dictionary of Quotations, wherein he commented, "the retention of this phrase is a remarkable instance of the transmitting power of speech."

Esau was cheated by his brother, or Jacob bested his brother in a quick bargain. It is a matter of perspective. Esau gave up something valuable for something very minor. Esau was hungry NOW and wanted to eat. ‘Mess of pottage’, has come to mean: something considered of little value. The phrase is colorful, and evocative. It is one of many turns of biblical phrase that lingers in the idiom and vernacular.

Genesis xxv. 29-34.
And Jacob boiled pottage: to whom Esau, coming faint out of the field, Said: Give me of this red pottage, for I am exceeding faint. For which reason his name was called Edom. And Jacob said to him: Sell me thy first birthright. He answered: Lo I die, what will the first birthright avail me. Jacob said: Swear therefore to me. Esau swore to him, and sold his first birthright. And so taking bread and the pottage of lentils, he ate, and drank, and went his way; making little account of having sold his first birthright. ―DRC

Coxit autem Jacob pulméntum : ad quem cum venísset Ésau de agro lassus, ait : Da mihi de coctióne hac rufa, quia óppido lassus sum. Quam ob causam vocátum est nomen ejus Edom. Cui dixit Jacob : Vende mihi primogénita tua. Ille respóndit : En mórior, quid mihi próderunt primogénita ? Ait Jacob : Jura ergo mihi. Jurávit ei Ésau et véndidit primogénita. Et sic, accépto pane et lentis edúlio, comédit et bibit, et ábiit, parvipéndens quod primogénita vendidísset.

And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint: And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom. And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright. And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me? And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright. ―KJV
Mess refers broadly to food: its amount, softness, mixture, companions at table, and location of table. Pottage is a soft, semiliquid food; a simple, boiled stew.

Now, in the english, ‘pottage’ is used thrice. In the latin: pulmentum (appetizer) is used first, coctióne hac rufa (this red cooking) next, and finally, pane et lentis edúlio (bread and lentil edible). Pottage is not much used to-day in english, potage is in french.

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