Published 400 years ago, the impact of the King James Bible, is still being felt in the way we speak and write, says Stephen Tomkins.
No other book, or indeed any piece of culture, seems to have influenced the English language as much as the King James Bible. Its turns of phrase have permeated the everyday language of English speakers, whether or not they’ve ever opened a copy. The Sun says Aston Villa “refused to give up the ghost”. Wendy Richard calls her EastEnders character Pauline Fowler “the salt of the earth”. The England cricket coach tells reporters, “You can’t put words in my mouth.” Daily Mirror fashion pages call Tilda Swinton “a law unto herself”.
Though each of those phrases was begotten of the loins of the English Bible, it’s safe to say that none of those speakers was deliberately quoting the Bible to people they expected to be familiar with its contents. And while a 2009 survey by Durham University found that only 38% of us know the parable of prodigal son, a recent book by the linguist David Crystal, appropriately called Begat: The King James Bible and the English language, counts 257 phrases from the King James Bible in contemporary English idiom.
Such statistics take us back to days of old when this Bible was the daily reading of millions of people throughout the English speaking world, from Northamptonshire cobblers to US presidents – though not perhaps so far distant in the latter case.
Readers absorbed its language both directly and through other reading. Tennyson considered Bible reading “an education in itself”, while Dickens called the New Testament “the very best book that ever was or ever will be known in the world.”
The US statesman Daniel Webster said: “If there is anything in my thoughts or style to commend, the credit is due to my parents for instilling in me an early love of the Scriptures.” Equally celebrated as a British orator, TB Macaulay said that the translation demonstrated “the whole extent of [the] beauty and power” of the English language.
Why has its influence been so marked? Alister McGrath, professor of theology, ministry and education at King’s College, London, is the author of In the Beginning: the Story of the King James Bible and how it changed a Nation, a Language and a Culture.
He points to several reasons. The Bible was “a very public text”, he says. “It would have been read aloud in churches very, very extensively, which would have imprinted it on people’s minds.”
Then, going back to the likes of Dickens and Webster, there’s the way influential people mediated and amplified the effect.
“The King James Bible” says McGrath, “had a very significant influence on the movers and shakers, particularly in London, who had a huge influence on what ordinary people took to be good English.”
Another reason was that the time was ripe. “English was in a particularly fluid state. Both the works of Shakespeare and the King James Bible appeared around this formative time and stamped their imprint on the newer forms of the language.”
Perhaps the most intriguing reason for the impact of the King James Bible is that it ignored what today would be considered essentials for good translation.
“The translators seem to have taken the view that the best translation was a literal one, so instead of adapting Hebrew and Greek to English forms of speaking they simply translated it literally. The result wouldn’t have made all that much sense to readers, but they got used to it, and so these fundamentally foreign ways of expressing yourself became accepted as normal English through the influence of this major public text.”
Examples of Hebrew idiom that have become English via the Bible include: “to set one’s teeth on edge”, “by the skin of one’s teeth”, “the land of the living” and “from strength to strength”
David Crystal in Begat, however, set out to counter exaggerated claims for the influence of the King James Bible. “I wanted to put a precise number on it,” he explains, “because some people have said there are thousands of phrases from the King James Bible in our language, that it is the DNA of the English language. I found 257 examples.”
More importantly, Crystal discovered that only a small minority of those phrases were original to the KJB, most of them being copied from earlier translators, above all William Tyndale.
“Only 18 of that total were unique to the King James Bible. It didn’t originate these usages, it acted as a kind of conduit through which they became popular. Tyndale was the number one influence.”
He also found that the Bible coined few new words. Shakespeare by comparison, introduced about 100 phrases into our idiom, to the Bible’s 257, but something like 1,000 new words. The English Bible introduced only 40 or so, including “battering ram” and “backsliding”.
“This reflects their different jobs,” says Crystal. “The whole point of being a dramatist is to be original in your language. The Bible translators, in contrast, were under strict instructions not to be innovative but to look backwards to what earlier translators had done.” Earlier translators whose only concern was to translate the Bible literally.
So paradoxically it seems that the profound influence of the King James Bible in changing and shaping our language came through the desire to be as linguistically conservative as possible.