The Grammarphobia Blog

Sackcloth and ashes

Q: In browsing The Devil’s Dictionary, I noticed that Ambrose Bierce’s entry on “Satan” describes the Prince of Darkness this way: “One of the Creator’s lamentable mistakes, repented in sashcloth and axes.” What is “sashcloth and axes”?

A: The journalist and satirist Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913) was famous for his irreverent plays on words, and this one is a typical example.

When he wrote that the mistake was “repented in sashcloth and axes,” he was making a pun on the biblical phrase “sackcloth and ashes.”

“Sackcloth,” a word dating from the late 1300s, meant a coarse material from which rough sacks or bags were made, rather like our modern burlap.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, sackcloth was known as “the material of mourning or penitential garb … as the coarsest possible clothing, indicative of extreme poverty or humility.”

The phrase “in sackcloth and ashes” meant “clothed in sackcloth and having ashes sprinkled on the head as a sign of lamentation or abject penitence,” the OED says.

The phrase appears in the Tyndale Bible of 1526: “They had repented longe agon in sack cloth and asshes.”

In modern times, the phrase is sometimes used to mean that a person strongly regrets some past action and is now suffering the consequences.

A favorite author of ours, Anthony Trollope, often used the phrase this way. In the following passage from Phineas Finn, Lady Laura says she regrets her unfortunate marriage to Robert Kennedy:

“Of course I was wrong to marry him. I know that now, and I repent my sin in sackcloth and ashes.”

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