Chrysti the Wordsmith: Holier than Thou

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“Holier than thou” is an unflattering moniker reserved for people considered offensively self-righteous. Those labeled “holier than thou” might, for example, adhere doggedly to religious doctrine, and sneer at those who do not.

Today’s expression comes, not surprisingly, from the pages of the Old Testament, where the prophet Isaiah is in dialogue with an angry God who accuses the Israelites of sacrificing to idols, consulting the dead, and eating the flesh of swine. To make matters worse, these religious strays feel superior to those who do not join them in their perverse rituals, and say, in the book of Isaiah, “Stand by thyself, come not near me, for I am holier than thou.”

The phrase “holier than thou” as a nickname for a self-righteous person began showing up in print in the early 20th century. Journalists have re-jiggered this ancient phrase to fit up-to-the-minute social and political developments. Those “greener than thou” wear their smug environmentalism on their sleeves. The most maverick of recording musicians are “indier than thou.” Also spotted: “hipper than thou,” “blacker than thou,” and, the Nashville songwriter with the most homegrown lyrics is “countrier than thou.”

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