Feet of Clay – Idiom, Meaning & Origin

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Idioms are excellent ways to add analogy, allusion, or even symbolism to your speech and writing. They are figurative words and phrases that often relate to a literal meaning but occasionally create confusion due to their origins.

Feet of clay is an idiom that is poorly understood and often used incorrectly. It originated as an allusion in a Bible verse with no known literal meaning, confusing anyone unfamiliar with this origin.

I explain what feet of clay means below, as well as how it should be used in a modern context.

What Is the Meaning of Feet of Clay?

Feet of Clay Idiom Meaning Origin

Feet of clay is an idiom that roughly translates as a fatal flaw, a negative characteristic, our ruinous attribute that is hidden in an otherwise admirable human being.

The expression feet of clay is usually applied to someone who seems to be a paragon of virtue or is exceptionally prominent or well-thought-of in the community. However, this person has a disappointing behavioral feature not well known to society. For instance, a champion of civil rights who is also a womanizer may be said to have feet of clay, or a captain of industry who also has a drug problem may be said to have feet of clay.

The expression is used in one of two ways:

  1. It may help make the person more relatable and human due to their fallibility.
  2. It can be used to signal the shaky moral ground they stand upon that will ultimately signal their failure.
Feet of Clay Idiom Meaning Origin 1

For example:

  • Despite the discovery of his feet of clay, it didn’t take away from the amazing scientific work he had completed for the University, allowing future generations to build upon his theory to develop meaningful diagnoses and treatments.
  • Your feet of clay brought you back down to the level of the rest of us, forcing you to pay attention to what others had to say about the situation and act accordingly in the best interest of the entire business.
  • The fact that the CEO of such a large nonprofit had feet of clay created uncertainty among the businesses that had worked with them in the past.

Synonyms for Feet of Clay

  • Character flaw
  • Weakness
  • Irresolute
  • Fault
  • Vice

Feet of Clay Origins

Feet of Clay Ngram
Feet of clay usage trend.

In the Bible’s Book of Daniel, the prophet Daniel interprets a dream for King Nebuchadnezzar. In the dream, the king sees a richly made idol that has feet made of clay: “This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.” From this image, Daniel predicted the breaking apart of the king’s empire due to the idol standing upon symbolically weak and breakable clay.

Although referenced many times throughout history, the expression took root in the 19th century to point out flaws in otherwise seemingly virtuous people. It was particularly popular to use in literature published during this time frame.

For example, many literary analyses of 19th-century novels point out the consistent use of flawed characters, describing them as having feet of clay. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Reverend Dimsdale, the secret father of Hester’s child, could be described as having feet of clay due to the sins he hides from his congregation and the weakness of character for refusing to take responsibility for his actions.

In Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850), Mr. Micawber hides his perpetual financial debts from the world and is unable to provide for his family despite being a well-liked and positive-natured man, and thus could be described as having feet of clay.

Let’s Review

The idiom feet of clay is not an easy one to interpret or understand unless you are familiar with its original analogy. Many idioms are created from a literal use of the words, but in this case, the phrase relates to a symbolic reference.

In the Bible’s Book of Daniel, Daniel interprets a king’s dream to mean that his kingdom will seem strong and prosperous but will eventually fail due to being built upon a weak foundation—or feet of clay.

The modern use of the term is used to describe a person who, by all appearances, is well-liked and respected but who has poor ethical or moral behaviors that undermine their efforts in the long run.