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)

  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 978-1-4349-8529-3, 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 978-0-415-80703-6, 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 978-1-4669-8417-2, 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.

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.

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