writing on the wall

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Rembrandt’s 1635 painting Het feestmaal van Belsazar (Belshazzar’s Feast), collection of the National Gallery, London, UK

From the Biblical story in Daniel 5, where, during a feast held by King Belshazzar, a hand suddenly appears and writes on a wall the following Aramaic words: מְנֵא מְנֵא תְּקֵל וּפַרְסִין(mənē mənē təqēl ūp̄arsīn, numbered, numbered, weighed, and they are divided) (Daniel 5:25). Daniel interprets the words as pointing to the downfall of the Babylonian Empire.



writing on the wall (countable and uncountable, plural writings on the wall or writings on walls)

  1. (idiomatic) An ominous warning; a prediction of bad luck.
    He could see the writing on the wall months before the business failed.
    • 1965, Noël Coward, “Note on ‘The Sixties’”, in The Lyrics, London: William Heinemann, OCLC 221087197, page 361:
      However, regardless of evil portents, prophetic despair and a great deal too much writing on the wall, I have managed so far to write two fairly cheerful musical comedies.
    • 2011, M. P. Prabhakaran, “Goa was Not a Settler Colony as Falkland is”, in Letters on India The New York Times Did Not Publish, Pittsburgh, Pa.: RoseDog Books, →ISBN, page 43:
      The Portuguese refused to read the writings on the wall and clung to their colonies, including the one in India.
    • 2012, Jan Nederveen Pieterse, “Global Rebalancing: Crisis and the East-South Turn”, in Jan Nederveen Pieterse and Jongtae Kim, editors, Globalization and Development in East Asia (Routledge Studies in Emerging Societies; 2), New York, N.Y.; Abingdon, Oxon.: Routledge, →ISBN, page 36:
      Without a doubt these trends represent the "next big thing". Consider a sampling of recent headlines as writings on the wall: []
    • 2014, Daniel Carnahan, The Manipulator, [Bloomington, Ind.]: Trafford Publishing, →ISBN, page 594:
      Don't you see the implications and writings on the wall for our family's future?
    • 2014 September 15, Rhonda Cook, “Regulator may push for state-mandated Taser training”, in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution[1], archived from the original on 25 October 2016:
      It gets to the point to where you see so much writing on the wall where we may not have a choice but to step in and say 'yes, you will train every year and you'll report that training to POST' in order for things to be done right.
    • 2022 February 23, Benedict le Vay, “Part of rail's past... present... and future”, in RAIL, number 951, pages 53-54:
      As a railwayman put it to me: "When I saw chums of mine took their families down there by car, I could see the writing on the wall. We all had free passes, yet they got the car out!"

Usage notes[edit]

As an uncountable noun, the phrase alludes to a vague set of ominous indications. As a countable noun, the singular refers to a specific warning.

Alternative forms[edit]


See also[edit]