October 01, 2006

Ask Language Log

Rosie Redfield writes:

I used to think that the phrase "new wine in old bottles" referred to a new item or concept with little intrinsic value being packaged in a way that deceptively gave it the high values belonging to an older or well-established concept or item.

But lately I've been noticing the reverse phrase "old wine in new bottles", where something old is said to gain apparent value by new packaging. This turns out to be the more common usage: Google finds 136,000 "old wine in new bottles" and 50,000 "new wine in old bottles"

Is this a new confusion? Which is the original?

Answering the second question first: despite the Google counts, the original expression is "new wine in old bottles". The source of this expression is a parable reported in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, given in the modern-spelling KJV below:

Matthew 9:14-17

Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not?
And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast.
No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse.
Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.

Mark 2:18-22

And the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast: and they come and say unto him, Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but thy disciples fast not?
And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast.
But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days.
No man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment: else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old, and the rent is made worse.
And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.

Luke 5:33-39

And they said unto him, Why do the disciples of John fast often, and make prayers, and likewise the disciples of the Pharisees; but thine eat and drink?
And he said unto them, Can ye make the children of the bridechamber fast, while the bridegroom is with them?
But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days
And he spake also a parable unto them; No man putteth a piece of a new garment upon an old; if otherwise, then both the new maketh a rent, and the piece that was taken out of the new agreeth not with the old.
And no man putteth new wine into old bottles; else the new wine will burst the bottles, and be spilled, and the bottles shall perish.
But new wine must be put into new bottles; and both are preserved.
No man also having drunk old wine straightway desireth new: for he saith, The old is better.

You might well be puzzled about why old bottles would be any more likely to burst than new ones. My assumption, based on no reliable information at all, has always been that the "bottles" in question would have been bags made from goatskin or the like, and old ones would have become dried out and prone to crack, especially given the stresses caused by fermentation of new wine.

As for the original meaning of the new/old wine/bottle parable, your guess is as good as mine, but my guess would be something in the general line of the UCC's interpretation of Gracie Allen's proverb "Never put a period where God has placed a comma". In a more familiar idiom, something like "different strokes for different folks".

However, the common application of the associated phrase has long since shifted in a completely different direction. Most uses in recent centuries seem to refer to certain sorts of deceptive practices, either passing something old off as new, or passing something new off as old. And people have become quite confused about whether it's old wine in new bottles, or new wine in old bottles. My theory is that this is because fementation of wine in goatskin wine bottles has never really been part of Anglophone culture, so the parable never made a lot of sense in the British Isles or in North America.

Addressing Professor Redfield's first question, "Is this a new confusion?":

You might be tempted to attribute the confusion to a modern decline in bible-study standards. However, while it's certainly true that the proportion of the population who can identify such biblical references is probably at an all-time low (cue the survey comparing knowledge of the bible and the Simpsons), the phrasal confusion is by no means modern in origin.

The earliest clear example of confusion that I was able to locate, in a couple of minutes of on-line searching, was from "The Retailer, No. VI", The Columbian Magazine, Dec 1788; 2, 12; p. 695:

Some unlucky satirical gentleman has found out our little rendezvous, and has lashed me severely by a letter, upon the subject of my numbers, and not content with leaving me to the secret pangs of self-mortification, he wishes me to give it a place in the present Retailer; as it will possibly afford some entertainment to the reader, and will furnish me with an opportunity to exculpate myself, I shall comply with his request.

"Master Retailer,

"I have for these four months kept a very sharp eye upon you, as I wanted to examine all your manoeuvres. I am pretty well acquainted with the liberties you take with yourself and others: -- for it is a well-known fact, that there is not a set of writers in the world, who are so given to fibbing, as your Spectators, Tattlers, Triflers, and your whole race of 'ers; but in good faith I think you beat them all. [...]

Now your third number really makes me laugh -- I'troth you must dream, because others before have dreamt, and then to set yourself up, you pull others down, pretending that all authors are Retailers. Thank Heaven! this was but a dream, and perfectly new, for I am sure no mortal ever dreamt of such a thing before; no, no, they were none of your second-handed fellows, that would present some stale stuff in a new fangled dress, or give you "old wine in new bottles," nor even new wine in old bottles, nor yet collect all the remains in the mugs of slobbering drunkards, nor like a certain brother Retailer of your's, who keeps nothing but Bohea tea, distributed in a number of little kegs, and yet can produce to his ignorant customers as good Hyson, Imperial, Congo, or Souchong, as ever came from Pekin, no -- they could each give you the genuine stuff, of their own preparing too."
[emphasis added]

Finally, I was very impressed by Professor Redfield's research blog. This is not my field at all, but that makes it all the more interesting to watch how someone thinks about research in progress, rather than trying to put the message back together from the way the results are ultimately presented in a formal journal article. It reminds me of the letters Michael Ventris wrote to Emmett Bennett, Alice Kober and others as he was working on the decipherment of Linear B.

[Update -- Ian Slater writes:

You seem to picked up your understanding to the "bottles" in the KJV from a reliable source.

Restricting the search to Matthew (on the assumption that translators would follow their own precedent what was long regarded as the "First Gospel," I found that The Revised Version of 1881, and the Revised Standard Version, have "wineskins," for the Greek askos (confirmed in UBS "Greek New Testament" and the Perseus on-line text), "leathern bag, wineskin" (after Liddell-Scott).

The standard explanation seems to be that skin bags, once having been stretched to their limits by fermenting wine, could not be expected to survive re-use.

Among the predecessors of the KJV, two rivals, the Calvinist Geneva Bible (1560) and the official Bishops' Bible (1568), both had the slightly ambiguous "vessels." I suspect was the reading of the earlier Tyndale-based versions as well, although I haven't found on-line texts to supplement my collection.

However, "bottle," in the general sense of "container for a liquid," as opposed to the modern assumption of "glass bottle," may have been the intended sense in 1611. It certainly hasn't been taken that way, however.

The eighteenth-century Challoner revision of Douay-Rheims has "bottles," but the influence of the KJV may be evident here, as elsewhere; the Douay New Testament of 1582 may have read differently. It was supposed to be following the Vulgate, which has "uter," defined by Lewis and Short as "a bag or bottle made of an animal's hide, a skin for wine, oil, water, etc." (again, checked against the Perseus on-line versions).


[And Kevin Smith agrees:

My two cents regarding the Biblical reference:

According to Thayer and Smith's Bible Dictionary, the Greek word used for bottles (transliterated Askos) refers to "a leathern bag or bottle, in which water or wine was kept." And many modern translations (the NIV and NAS come to mind) use the term "wineskins" instead of "bottles." The use of the term isn't to surprising, given Webster's definition of "bottle" in 1828:

"A hollow vessel of glass, wood, leather or other material, with a narrow mouth, for holding and carrying liquors. The oriental nations use skins or leather for the conveyance of liquors; and of this kind are the bottles mentioned in scripture. 'Put new wine into bottles.'"


[Josh Jensen clarifies the meaning of the parable:

A cursory glance over several commentaries reveals (surprisingly!) that in this case, there's general agreement over what Jesus meant about wine and wineskins. Jesus has been introducing a new paradigm, a new way of thinking about the kingdom of God. It just won't do to accept this new paradigm but hold onto the praxis that characterized the old paradigm.

A modern example: a university has a history faculty that thinks out from a European center. Over time, faculty members retire, die, or go to work at conservative think tanks. A new generation of professors comes to be the dominant force in the department. Eventually, an old alumnus visits campus and looks at a course listing. He asks where The History of Civilization and other core classes went to. The Chair tells him: "We don't teach the old classes because we don't believe what the course titles claimed about history. You can't put new wine in old wineskins: you'll ruin the skin and the wine. If you want the old wineskin, go somewhere that serves the old wine."

Since Josh describes himself elsewhere as "a very conservative evangelical", that history-department example has some interesting overtones. ]

[Update -- more here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 1, 2006 02:40 PM