Mess of pottage

Mess of pottage

The phrase mess of pottage means something of little value. It is associated with the exchange by Esau of his birthright for a meal of lentil stew, as described in Genesis 25:29-34 in the Bible. (A pottage is a type of soup.)

Although this phrase is often used to describe Esau's bargain, the phrase itself is not actually biblical. It does not appear in the text of any English Bible. Rather, it first appeared in the heading of chapter 25 of the book of Genesis in the Geneva Bible published by English Protestants in Geneva in 1560. Miles Smith used the same phrase in "The Translators to the Reader," the lengthy preface to the 1611 King James Bible. Although it can be found in older printings, few editions of the King James Bible include this lengthy preface today. The phrase, however, has remained in the language.

Smith's use of the phrase illustrates how the translators of the King James Bible went beyond their instructions, consulting the Geneva Bible along with other, approved, translations.

By a conventional Spoonerism, an overly propagandistic writer is said to have "sold his birthright for a pot of message". Theodore Sturgeon had one of his characters say this about H. G. Wells in his 1948 short story Unite and Conquer; but Roger Lancelyn Green (in 1962) ascribed it to Professor Nevill Coghill, Merton Professor of English Literature at Oxford University, who with Green was a member of the Inklings, a group of writers that flourished at Oxford in the decades just before, during, and after World War II and also included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

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