Q&A: The origin of “hide one’s light under a bushel”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're beating around the bushel…

Q: Hey AWC, where does “hide one’s light under a bushel” come from?

A: Ah, the idiom that Macquarie Dictionary defines as to conceal one’s abilities or good qualities”?

Q: Sounds about right.

A: Shall we talk about bushels first?

Q: Um, sure. I’m guessing it’s a small bush, yeah?

A: Nope.

Q: Wait, what? But all this time I thought the phrase must be related to the dangers of putting tiki torches under garden hedges or other decorative shrubs.

A: You may be surprised to learn that a “bushel” is a unit of measurement for dry goods. 

Q: That is surprising. So how much is a bushel?

A: In the old imperial system, it was the equivalent to 8 gallons. 

Q: So, like what Darth Vader measured things in?

A: No, not THAT imperial system. 

Q: Oh good. Because I thought Star Wars was all about parsecs.

A: Nope, we’re talking about the pre-metric measuring system – one that America still uses. Their version of a “bushel” is equal to about 8.25 “dry gallons”. 

Q: And everyone else smart just uses litres?

A: Yeah and it’s about 35 litres.

Q: Where does this weird measurement come from?

A: The practice goes all the way back to the 10th century. They didn’t have reliable scales, so things were simply measured by how much you could fit into a “bushel basket”.

Q: Sounds like a real basket case.

A: Basically. So a “bushel of apples” and a “bushel of wheat” may have weighed different amounts, but both were based on filling the basket.

Q: I assume there WAS an amount though, for each thing?

A: Well yeah. Wheat, for example, was about 60 pounds – or a million kernels.

Q: Imagine having the job of counting those…

A: Well the bushel removed the need for that! 

Q: Oh yeah. So, how old is the word itself?

A: “Bushel” (and “peck” – which is a quarter of a bushel) turned up in English in the 13th century, during the post-1066 influx of French words. “Bushel” came from the Old French word “boissel” – an ancient grain measure that translated as “a handful”.

Q: Seems much bigger than a handful!

A: True, but that’s simply the origin. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the exact measure of a bushel not only varied by the commodity but also the place. Britain standardised their bushel in the 1800s, but America’s continued to be the Wild West depending on the state you were in. 

Q: That’s apt, as America WAS the Wild West in the 1800s.

A: True. For anyone not trading these goods, “bushel” simply came to mean “a large quantity or number”.

Q: So, back to my original question. Why are we hiding a light under this basket?

A: Good question! “To hide (one’s) light under a bushel” comes directly from the book of Matthew (5:15) in the Bible. It involved a parable of “the lamp under a bushel” – told by Jesus to his followers in his “Sermon on the Mount”.

Q: Sermon of the Mount?

A: Yeah, think of it as him giving a big Ted Talk on a mountain.

Q: Great acoustics.

A: Yeah, so this talk was all about how to live their lives. In this parable, sometimes also called “the lamp under a bowl”, he was telling his believers not to hide their faith. In modern times, this meaning has become the more secular “don’t conceal your talents or abilities”. 

Q: So what was the actual context?

A: Essentially it was: Do not light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.” 

Q: Wise words.

A: Very illuminating.

Q: Haha. But wait, Jesus was doing his speaking tour 2000 years ago and yet “bushel” as a word isn’t that old, right?

A: Good point. But remember, the Bible itself has been re-translated throughout the centuries, especially from the 1500s on. And it was a New Testament translation of the parable by William Tyndale during this time that is credited with first using the word “bushel”. It would go on to inform the famous King James Version of the Bible in the 1600s. And the “hide one’s light under a bushel” proverb from then on.

Q: So, to recap – in the Bible, Jesus did a Ted Talk on a mountain and told his followers not to be shy about their beliefs. It was told as a story of hiding a lamp under a bowl/basket, later given the name “bushel”. 

A: That’s right. The phrase is fairly old-fashioned these days, but it continues to mean hiding your talents.

Q: And has absolutely nothing to do with setting fire to your garden?

A: Correct. But you ALSO should never hide a lit tiki torch under a bush. Do not try that at home…

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