The king james bible and the english language

You might be more familiar with the words of the KJV Bible than you realize. While it may seem your grandparents made up that funny saying, the truth goes back much farther.

Did The KJV Affect The English Language?

Which came first? Was it the King James Version that influenced English, or was it English that influenced the KJV? As it turns out, a little of both is true.

You would expect a book that has sold an estimated one billion copies over the past four centuries to wield influence. Some have rightly mused that an entire King James Bible could be reproduced simply from the quotations of the great literary writers.

Society saw the KJV’s impact on literature, language, culture, law, religion, politics, education – even music.  (Handel’s Messiah, for example.) 

KJV Bible blog

The poetry of its language made it particularly suited for reading aloud. In fact, the translators intended its composition for reading aloud, and not simply for individual study. They pushed not only for accurate representation of the original text, but also beauty in reading the text.

Today, many history, philosophy, and English teachers use the Bible in their courses. Their reason? Students needed an understanding of Biblical language and story to understand American culture. Put another way, biblical illiteracy was inhibiting cultural understanding.

How did this happen?

The producers of the KJV took pains to make certain that every biblical word could find an English counterpart. This ideal had the effect of maintaining certain English usage for centuries to come. For many people, a King James Bible was the only “library” they ever possessed. No doubt its pervasive use preserved idiomatic English language for some time.

For example, why would an American kid growing up in the 1970s, as the present author did, speak in “thee-s” and “thou-s”? The typical American would have considered that quite unusual.  Yet three hundred and sixty years after publication, the old English style of the KJV lived on in a little farm town outside of Philadelphia. Quite honestly, I still prefer the older English version of the Lord’s Prayer to a modernized “your kingdom come . . . your will be done” one.

Popular KJV Phrases

“Whenever we put words into someone's mouth, or see the writing on the wall, or go from strength to strength, or eat, drink and be merry, or fight the good fight, or bemoan the signs of the times, or find a fly in the ointment, or use words such as ‘long-suffering’, ‘scapegoat’ and ‘peacemaker’ we are unconsciously quoting the KJB.”

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.”[2] Similarly, Biblical influence shines through the writing of Shakespeare, Milton and Bunyan. 

Old books on cobblestones

A modest internet search (www.phrases.org.uk) found these still-used phrases from the KJV: The list is a “drop in the bucket”:

  • “salt of the earth”
  • “give up the ghost”
  • “set your teeth on edge”
  • “out of the mouths of babes”
  • “spare the rod, spoil the child”
  • “physician heal thyself!”
  • “living off the fat of the land”
  • “as old as the hills”

Is the KJV’s Influence Overrated?

From another perspective, David Crystal, author of Begat. The King James Bible and the English Language (Oxford, 2010), claims we should not overestimate the KJV‘s influence on English. He found 257 phrases from the KJV that made their way into everyday English. Only 18 were unique to the KJV, while the others carried over from Wycliffe’s and Tyndale’s translations. [3] He notes that only 40 unique words such as armor-bearer, pruning-hook, battering ram, and backsliding came from the KJV into English. It was Wycliffe’s Bible that originally contributed over 1400 new words.

Wycliffe’s Bible, however, is no longer in circulation. Much of it was indeed taken into the King James Version, preserving Wycliffe’s work and offering it a much wider circulation. Either way, language preserved by the KJV made its way into our everyday English language.

In closing, let’s have fun with one last smattering of KJV phrases:

Did your favorite sports team win their last game “by the skin of their teeth?” Did your contractor finish his work “by the sweat of his brow?” Do you know some unpleasant folks who should “beat their swords into plowshares?” For the uber-wealthy, adding another million to their portfolio is a “drop in the bucket.” While I have written this article as a “labor of love,” being asked to do these things has become a “thorn in my flesh.” I am “at my wits end!” Alas, there is “no rest for the wicked.” It is a “cross I must bear.” I do hope, though, that by writing this article, I am not “casting my pearls before swine." !

 

[1] http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/21/king-james-bible-english-language - accessed September 10, 2021.

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12205084 - accessed August 26, 2021.

[3] http://www.oed.com/public/flyintheointment - accessed 10 September 2021.

 

Discussion for bible The King James Bible and the English Language

chevron-arrow-up.png