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What Does "Holier than Thou" Mean?

By Darlene Zagata
Updated May 23, 2024
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“Holier than thou” is a phrase used to describe someone who acts superior to others or is perceived to act that way. Typically, the phrase refers to an attitude that places an individual above others on a moralistic level. Although no one is perfect, this outlook might lead a person to be quick to point out other people's flaws but rarely notice his or her own. The term often refers to someone so pious and devout in his beliefs that he judges others, which many people consider to be exactly the opposite of the biblical warning “judge not lest ye be judged.”

The exact origin of this phrase is unknown. It is sometimes presumed to have originated from a biblical passage in Isaiah 65:5, the King James Version translation of which states: “come not near me, for I am holier than thou.” Regardless of its origin, the phrase didn't come into common usage in the English language until the 20th century.

The word “thou” originates from Old English. Although is used as an ordinary pronoun meaning “you,” it was once used in certain Bible translations to refer exclusively to God and was capitalized. When considered in light of this knowledge, the phrase “holier than thou” might be interpreted to mean putting oneself above God.

The attitude of the biblical Pharisees, a group of religious leaders who were very devout in their beliefs, might be interpreted as “holier than thou.” According to the books of the New Testament, the Pharisees adhered so strictly to religious laws that they opposed Jesus doing good works on the sabbath. In so doing, their attitude was said to have been a transgression of the law because in their self-righteousness, they placed themselves above God.

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Discussion Comments
By Rotergirl — On Nov 01, 2014

@Lostnfound- I understand what you're going through. I also had a problem with a boss who acted holier than thou all the time. I was really young at the time, and I liked to hang out with my friends and listen to bands and things like that. Nothing illegal, and I was always at work on time. But my boss was always reminding me that he never drank to excess or hung out in clubs when he was my age, and I should really look at the toll my "unruly lifestyle" (his words) was taking on my body and soul.

I couldn't take his holier than thou attitude much longer, so I ended up quitting that job and getting hired at a local bar as a cocktail waitress. One of my first customers was my former boss.

By Lostnfound — On Oct 31, 2014

I'm still dealing with some people at my church with holier than thou attitudes. I'm in my early 30s and unmarried, which apparently means I'm morally suspect in their eyes. Other church members have told me these three ladies like to speculate on why I haven't done the "right" thing and marry a decent man by now. I can feel them judging me whenever I do bring a boyfriend to church events. I don't judge people for their personal beliefs, and I have dated non-Christian men in the past. I just don't appreciate being looked at as less moral because of my own choices.

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