“From strength to strength”

This turned up in a New York Times article a couple of months ago:

Susan Kamil, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Random House, confirmed the acquisition on Monday, saying in a statement, “We’re thrilled to welcome Lena [Dunham] to Random House. Her skill on the page as a writer is remarkable — fresh, wise, so assured. She is that rare literary talent that will only grow from strength to strength and we look forward to helping her build a long career as an author.”

I was surprised, because I’d always thought of from strength to strength–meaning, basically, that something is already doing well and is expected to do even better–as one of those British expressions, such as spoiled for choice, that would probably never make it over here.

Screen Shot 2012-12-26 at 11.45.36 AMBut I found that the Susan Kamil quote wasn’t a one-off, as witness this from the Yale Daily News: “After winning every Ivy game this season, the women’s volleyball team is going from strength to strength.” (October 17, 2012) And this February 2102 quote from the Times’ David “Think British, Act Yiddish” Brooks: “Without real opposition, the wingers go from strength to strength.”

It turns out that the expression has a long history, on both sides of the Atlantic. Forgive me for stating what may be obvious to some, but it appears first to have been used in Myles Coverdale’s 1535 translation of the Bible, where Psalms 84:7 is rendered “They go from strength to strength and so the God of Gods apeareth unto them in Zion.” The phrase was used in the King James and other subsequent versions, as well as by religious writers, including Julian Hare in an 1849 sermon: “Mounting from strength to strength, from highth, to a higher highth!”

The Google Ngram chart below shows the use of the phrase in Britain (blue line) and the United States (red line) from 1800 through 2008:

Screen Shot 2012-12-26 at 11.37.31 AM

The uses appear predominantly religious until about 1900–and note that in the nineteenth century it was considerably more popular in the U.S. The ascendance of the blue line in the early twentieth reflects its acceptance as a secular metaphor in the U.K.; the (presumably continuing) upturn of the red line starting in about 2000 suggests that from strength to strength is a solid NOOB.

Can spoiled for choice be far behind?

10 thoughts on ““From strength to strength”

  1. Strange, “strength to strength didn’t register with me as a Britishism at all. My family held onto a number of phrases that were either Scottish or Presbyterian; I wonder which this is.

  2. I suppose my going to church all my life accounts for my long familiarity with “strength to strength”. On the other hand, I’ve never seen the term “spoiled for choice” until this post. I’ll hold researching its meaning for later.

    1. Spoilt, spoiled… I guess we’re not exactly spoilt for choice so far, but would be if spoylte, spoil’d, spoyeld and so on were available as well. Ho ho ho.

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