October 31, 2017

Words of the Month - Biblical English

        Today is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation’s kick-off in Germany.  (See the previous post for more on Martin Luther and printmaking.)  For purposes of the English language, however, the important Reformation date is 1534 when King Henry VIII declared himself the head of the church in England instead of the pope.  Thereupon Henry ordered the first authorized English translation of the Bible.  (Previous English translations had been illegal.)  Several English translations followed, but the most famous, long-lasting, beloved, and influential English text of the Bible is certainly the version authorized by King James I.  The work began in 1604 and was completed in 1611, and has had a tremendous influence on the idioms of the English language ever since.
        Contemporary with William Shakespeare, that other paramount influence on English’s catchy phrases, the King James Bible (aka the Authorised Version) nevertheless contrasts widely with Shakespeare’s work.  For one thing, its poetic beauty, rather than being the product of a lone genius’s fertile mind, was the work of a committee of 47 scholars and a long process of sub-committees and group decisions.  Secondly, where Shakespeare is famed for the wild ingenuity of his language, his huge vocabulary, his gleeful embrace of fire-new words and words he made up himself, the King James Bible was written with a deliberately narrow vocabulary and somewhat old-fashioned language, so as to be sure everyone could understand it easily.  Yet its committee of scholars made enduring, beloved poetry with their vocabulary only a quarter the size of Shakespeare’s, and the KJV’s language has become so deeply embedded in everyday English that we quote it unknowingly all the time.
        Of course, we frequently quote the Bible knowingly, too.  Most speakers are probably aware that the following idioms are Biblical:
   Let there be light (Genesis 1:3)
   an eye for an eye (Matthew 5:38)
   Am I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis 4:9)
   Thou shalt not… (Exodus 20)

        But even more telling are those phrases that many people don’t even realize have their origins in the seventeenth century Bible.
   a drop in the bucket (Isaiah 40:15 “a drop of a bucket”)
   all things to all men (1 Corinthians 9:22)
   at their wit’s end (Psalms 107:27)
   to eat, and to drink, and to be merry (Ecclesiastes 8:15)
   fight the good fight (Timothy 6:12)
   heart’s desire (Psalms 21:2)
   labor of love (Thessalonians 1:3, Hebrews 6:10)
   a man after his own heart (Samuel 1:14, Acts 13:22)
   no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
   nothing but skin and bones (Job 19:20)
   out of the mouth of babes (Psalm 8:2, Matthew 21:16)
   physician, heal thyself (Luke 4:23)
   put the words in her mouth (2 Samuel 14:3)
   the root of the matter (Job 19:28)
   see eye to eye (Isaiah 52:8)
   the signs of the times (Matthew 16:3)
   stumbling block (Ezekial 3:20, 1 Corinthians 1:23)
   suffer fools gladly (2 Corinthians 11:19)
   two are better than one (Ecclesiastes 4:9)

        This is just a small sampling, of course.  Plus there are many more famous phrases which the King James Bible reused from previous English translations, such as “I have escaped with the skin of my teeth” and “the powers that be.”  The translators purposely reused phrasings that were familiar to people when they deemed the meaning accurate and the sound appealing.  Although it’s likely that it was the KJV that really popularized these idioms as household words, I haven’t included them in my list because no one can really know for sure.
        You can see that the phrases I’ve listed are used as idioms, not just quotations, because they can be adapted to different situations.  Some of them have had their grammar tweaked to keep up with the language, although I have purposely left out phrases in which the wording in common usage is not substantively what the KJV gave us.  There are lots of English phrases that derive from Biblical stories but which do not use the KJV’s wording, such as “forbidden fruit” and “the writing on the wall,” but the point here is not the influence of the Bible, but the influence of the King James Authorized Translation.  It’s significant, though, that many of these idioms can have their pronouns switched for appropriate reference, and can be played with but still have hearers recognize the original phrase, as in, for example, “He’s not his sister’s keeper.”  That shows they’re alive and active in the language, not just frozen relics.
        Obviously the King James Bible’s language wouldn’t have influenced English so deeply if the Bible were not such a fundamental part of the culture, but I think it’s also true to say that these Biblical verses would not have remained so deeply embedded in the culture if it weren’t for the power of the KJV’s language.

[Pictures: Title page and dedication from a 1613 edition of the King James Bible (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Title page of first folio printing of KJV, 1611 (Image from King James Bible Online, but better information about it at Ohio State University);
Interior page of 1611 edition of KJV (Image from Wikimedia Commons).]


Pax said...

Thanks for this interesting post. I chuckle when someone quotes the Bible and thinks it is Shakespeare, or vice versa.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Shakespeare could probably quote the Bible pretty well himself!