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How The King James Bible 'Begat' English Idioms

Dec 22, 2010 (Talk of the Nation)

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In Begat, David Crystal sets out to prove that the King James Bible has contributed more to the English language than any other literary source.

If you've ever "fought the good fight" or chuckled at "what comes out of the mouths of babes," you just might agree with him.

Phrases with roots in the King James Bible are everywhere. Crystal tells NPR's Neal Conan that writing Begat began with his curiosity about a simple question: How many English language idioms come from the King James Bible? When Crystal posed this question to people, they guessed a wide range of answers — anywhere from 50 to 1,000. So he decided he'd better read the Bible and figure it out.

"I went through it and looked for every instance of an expression that I thought was current in modern English," Crystal says. "And then I thought: I'd better read it again, just to make sure I haven't missed any." And after that second reading, he had a figure.

"I found 257," Crystal reports. He acknowledges that there's "no magic in that figure" and that someone else could read through the Bible and come up with a different number entirely.  Still, he thinks that 257 is about right. And "it makes the point that it isn't as high a figure as some people expect. On the other hand, it's twice the number that Shakespeare introduced, so it's not doing badly."

The King James Bible clearly has had "a huge influence on the English language." But, warns Crystal, "only a very tiny number of the expressions ... are unique to the King James Bible. The vast majority come from other Bibles from the 16th century." The turns of phrase in those other Bibles "were simply siphoned through the King James Bible."

But that's not because the translators of the King James Bible were lazy. They were instructed by the king to be conservative, to use the other Bibles where possible. "And only after they found those translations wanting, should they do their own thing."

So, truly, the King James Bible popularized the expressions that were already in biblical use. The King James version was appointed to be read in all churches, so "people started not just to quote these expressions, but to play with them — 'What hath Google wrought,' indeed."

The New Testament hosts most of the phrases that have made it into contemporary speech. "The sayings of Jesus have been a very important influence on English language tradition," Crystal says. In the Old Testament, books like Numbers and Deuteronomy are helpful if you want to learn how to build an ark, "but won't give you much by way of modern idiom."

Popular culture is riddled with takes on these phrases. "All kinds of pop singers — from the most profound folk singers like Joan Baez and so on to the most radical punk rockers ... produce biblical quotations just like the best of them."

But, says Crystal, some parts of the Bible are too sacred for adaptation into general idiomatic usage. "As soon as you get to very important parts of the Bible, such as the words of Jesus just before his crucifixion," or his words on the cross, the translations are so momentous and emotional, that Crystal predicts "it's most unlikely" they'll come up in conversation.

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Begat: The King James Bible And The English Language
By David Crystal
Hardcover, 320 pages
Oxford University Press, USA
List price: $24.95
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