some printed Latin text (usually Psalms li.1) "set by the ordinary of a prison before a malefactor claiming benefit of clergy, in order to test his ability to read. If the ordinary or his deputy said legit ut clericus (he reads like a clerk or scholar), the malefactor was burned in the hand and set free, thus saving his neck" [Century Dictionary]. See neck (n.) + verse (n.).
Entries linking to neck-verse
"that part of an animal body between the head and the trunk and which connects those parts," Middle English nekke, from Old English hnecca "neck, nape, back of the neck" (a fairly rare word) from Proto-Germanic *hnekk- "the nape of the neck" (source also of Old Frisian hnekka, Middle Dutch necke, Dutch nek, Old Norse hnakkr, Old High German hnach, German Nacken "neck"), with no certain cognates outside Germanic, though Klein's sources suggest PIE *knok- "high point, ridge" (source of Old Irish cnocc, Welsh cnwch, Old Breton cnoch "hill").
The more usual Old English words were hals (the general Germanic word, cognate with Gothic, Old Norse, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, German hals), from Proto-Germanic *halsaz, which is perhaps cognate with Latin collum (see collar (n.)); and sweora, swira "neck, nape," probably also from a PIE root meaning "column" (cognate with Old English swer "column," Sanskrit svaru- "post").
Oxen and other draught animals being yoked by the neck, it became a symbol of burdens, of submission or subjugation, and also resistance or obstinacy (compare stiff-necked). Figuratively, "life" (late 15c.) from the breaking or severing of the neck in legal executions. Meaning "narrow part at the top of a bottle" is from late 14c.; meaning "part of a garment which covers the neck" is from 1520s. Meaning "long, slender part of a stringed musical instrument" is from 1610s.
Sense of "isthmus, long, narrow strip of land connecting two larger ones" is from 1550s. Phrase neck of the woods (American English) is attested from 1780 in the sense of "narrow stretch of woods;" 1839 with meaning "settlement in a wooded region." To stick (one's) neck out "take a risk" is recorded by 1919, American English. Horses running neck and neck "at an equal pace" is attested from 1799; to win by a neck is from 1823. To be up to the neck "have a lot of" at first (mid-19c.) suggested "fed full," but since c. 1900 it has implied "in deep."
late Old English (replacing Old English fers, an early West Germanic borrowing directly from Latin), "line or section of a psalm or canticle," later "line of poetry" (late 14c.), from Anglo-French and Old French vers "line of verse; rhyme, song," from Latin versus "a line, row, line of verse, line of writing," from PIE root *wer- (2) "to turn, bend." The metaphor is of plowing, of "turning" from one line to another (vertere = "to turn") as a plowman does.
The English New Testament first was divided fully into verses in the Geneva version (1550s). Meaning "metrical composition" is recorded from c. 1300; as the non-repeating part of a modern song (between repetitions of the chorus) by 1918.
The Negroes say that in form their old songs usually consist in what they call "Chorus and Verses." The "chorus," a melodic refrain sung by all, opens the song; then follows a verse sung as a solo, in free recitative; the chorus is repeated; then another verse; chorus again;—and so on until the chorus, sung for the last time, ends the song. [Natalie Curtis-Burlin, "Negro Folk-Songs," 1918]