Old sins cast long shadows - Use & origin

Discussion in 'English Only' started by James Brandon, Nov 16, 2006.

  1. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    I am a bit puzzled by the phrase "Old sins cast long shadows". On the one hand, the meaning is pretty obvious (and a literal meaning is possible here). On the other hand, why would an "old sin" be worse, somewhat, than a "new sin". I would also like to know more about the phrase's origin. A quick search on the web has not yielded much. I have heard the phrase but would not say it is common.

  2. SweetSoulSister Senior Member

    American English
    That is not what it means. It means that it is hard to forget sins. An old sin will be around for a LONG time- it will cast a LONG shadow.
    But many say we should try to "forgive and forget." Easier said than done!
  3. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    OK, so it is not from the point of view of people in general or someone else, but from the standpoint of the person who committed that sin, as it were. This is interesting. It refers to how the sinner himself/herself is affected, then.
  4. MissFit

    MissFit Senior Member

    Right, it's from the sinner's point of view. The shadow is not only cast across a great distance in space (you can't run away from them), but through a great length of time as well (you can't outlast them.) It suggests that you must deal with sins or they just get bigger--and cast a longer shadow--as time passes. It's similiar to saying that your sins will haunt you.
  5. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    OK, "your sins will haunt you" is a very good explanation/formulation. Couldn't it be used when talking about someone else, from someone else's standpoint? Eg: Japan wants to join the Security Council, but old sins cast long shadows, and what the Japanese did in China during WWII will not be easily forgiven by the Chinese government. There would be no meaning attached to how the Japanese feel about it - only the Chinese. (I don't mean the example in a polemical way, by the way - just what springs to mind.) Is it biblical in origin?
  6. MissFit

    MissFit Senior Member

    I think that works. Whether or not Japan sees its past actions as "sins," they are still affecting Japan today--causing it difficulties in current diplomatic situations. Those difficulties are the "shadow."

    I'm fairly certain it is not specifically biblical in origin.
  7. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Thanks and the meaning is clear to me, now - i.e. what I thought, and a bit more than that...
  8. axg87 New Member

    it means your past can destroy your future if you let it
  9. JohnDouarte New Member

    I possess two novels by Col. Lewis Robinson (aka George Limnelius), a British mystery writer. In these novels he uses this proverb as follow:
    1. "The General Goes too far" (1936) : "...expiate that old sin, and old sins cast long shadows".
    2. "The Medbury Fort Murder" (1929): as a title of a chapter "Old Sins Have Long Shadows".
  10. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Thanks. It would appear that "cast" is used in the set phrase, rather than "have", if I remember correctly what was said and the examples that I have come across.
  11. Tucson New Member

    english-u.s., spanish-mexico
    Numbers 32:23 (NIV) But if you fail to do this, you will besinning against the Lord; and youmay be sure that your sin will find you out.
    Author of the Book of Numbers:Moses is credited as the author.
    Date Written: 1450-1410BC
    Last edited by a moderator: May 9, 2012
  12. pwmeek

    pwmeek Senior Member

    SE Michigan, USA
    English - American
    (This seems contradictory to me. Forgiving, but in the same sentence, not forgiving. Nonetheless, the meaning of the bold part is about the same as the original poster's quote.)

    This is the earliest version of the concept that I can find. James Suckling used the concept(1600s), but meaning that the importance of your sins may not be apparent at the time, but as you grow older, they may take on greater significance.

    By the early 20th Century, the saying began to appear similar in wording to the quote, and the meaning had mostly reverted to the biblical version: the sins of the fathers will "cast shadows" on future generations.
  13. lucas-sp Senior Member

    English - Californian
    I was going to jump in with the "sins of the fathers" Bible quote yesterday, but I didn't really feel qualified. Now that pwmeek's opened the floodgates, though...

    I was surprised reading this thread in that everybody was suggesting that "old sins cast long shadows" referred to one's own lifetime, when I had always thought it was intergenerational. That's why I thought of the "sins of the fathers." I understand the original phrase to mean that something really bad that happened, even if it happened before you (or your parents...) were born, can still have an effect on your life.

    And pw, Walpole uses the "iniquity of the fathers" in the 20th-century sense in his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto. So I think that it might never have gone out of style. Or maybe this interpretation is quite simply the more "gothic" reading of "Old sins cast long shadows."
  14. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Lucas and P W Meek are right, I think, to point out that the origin of the expression is indeed biblical, and the idea is not so much that one's own (personal) sins will come back to haunt one, but that earlier sins -- committed by one's ancestors, say -- will not be forgiven or forgotten.

    To use a contemporary and European example, one could say, I suppose, that Germany's sins (i.e. Nazism and WWII) cast long shadows today (in the way that Germans are perceived, or perceive themselves): this would mean that the misdeeds committed by Germans one or two generations ago are still having an impact on the lives of Germans today.
  15. jane finn

    jane finn New Member

    this phrase was used frequently by Agatha Christie in her books, and she generally meant that if injustice is not stopped and dealt with it can cause a domino effect on people's lives and be a sort of anti-karma-and also if someone gets away with something they may repeat it again and again increasing misery over the years in a cumulative manner-if something is prevented from happening by another's actions-that fact will alter history
  16. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Thanks for resurrecting this old Thread: your comment on the use of the phrase by A Christie gives added meaning to the phrase, in line with what was said before, it seems to me.

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