Sunday, July 24, 2011

Strait and Narrow

In church this morning, before the service began, I was flipping randomly through my old King James and read Matthew 7:13-14 “…strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life…” The word strait caught my eye as I was familiar with the phrase “straight and narrow”, and I wondered if this was an old way of spelling straight or if the meaning was other than I had assumed.

This evening I opened one of my new books, POSH (see previous post), and found an entry on this very phrase. It turns out that strait is used in the narrow and constricted sense in this and two other verses in the New Testament. In all three cases the word describes a gate, not a pathway, so strait makes more sense than straight. There are, however, other verses which refer to “straight paths”: for example John the Baptist’s message “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” is recorded in Mathew 3:3 and in the other three gospels as well.

These two words – strait and narrow – were later used together (earliest recorded use 1834 “…strait and narrow path of duty”). The phrase quickly became straight and narrow (earliest recorded use 1842 “…straight and narrow way”).

It’s easy to see how this error occurred. First, the two words strait and narrow were associated with each other from the Matthew 7 verses, and were assumed to be describing the same thing – pathway. Then confusion with other verses describing straight paths led to the assumption that the word was straight. It makes sense too that the pathway to life would not only be narrow but also straight and direct – wandering neither to the right nor the left. A profound thought, but not what Matthew was saying in this particular verse.

The time – 8 years – between the first records of the two spellings of the phrase is amazingly short. Keep in mind that a word or phrase can be in use for decades before it is found in written form.

That the phrase strait and narrow (or straight and narrow) is so commonly known, although never appearing in the Bible, reminds me of two similar examples. Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson” and Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick Blaine in the 1942 film Casablanca never uttered the complete phrase “Play it again, Sam”.


  1. A strait is a narrow passage way of water between two larger bodies of water, so in fact it meant the gate was narrow also, as you say. The writer was simply using his/her "thesaurus".