At a Seattle fundraiser on Sunday, Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden warned supporters that, if elected, Barack Obama will be tested by “an international crisis” early on in his first term. He also advised the crowd to “gird your loins,” since the tasks ahead for the next president will be “like cleaning the Augean stables, man.” What’s the best way to follow Biden’s advice?
With a belt. To gird means to bind or encircle, and loins refers to the area between your hips and ribs. (Note: In this case, loins does not refer to the genitals, as with Nabokov’s “light of my life, fire of my loins.”) So, “to gird your loins” means, literally, to wrap a belt around your waist so that your clothes don’t flop around. The phrase stems from the Bible and is scattered throughout both the Old and New Testaments—composed during notoriously floppy sartorial eras. When Elijah “girded up his loins” (1 Kings 18:46), he was probably wearing a knee-length robe. It’s likely that he fastened a cord tightly around his waist, then shortened his garment by pulling it up and letting it flounce over the belt. Or he might have taken the hem of his robe and tucked it into his belt, creating a makeshift pouch or pocket.
Romans prepping for a fight also needed to gird their loins. Especially if he needed to ride a horse, a Roman might have gathered up the skirtlike portion of his outfit, passed it through his legs, and fastened the whole mess with a girdle (a leather belt, basically, also used to hold tools or weapons).
Biden, of course, was advising his supporters to gird their loins in the figurative sense—that is, to brace themselves for a test of mental or emotional endurance. He was perhaps unintentionally echoing the apostle Peter, who recommended “girding up the loins of your mind … and [setting] your hope perfectly on the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13). Also, Paul, who in the Epistle to the Ephesians, mentions “having your loins girt about with truth” (Ephesians 6:14).
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Explainer thanks Larissa Bonfante of New York University and Judith Lynn Sebesta of the University of South Dakota.