What King James wrought
How the Bible still shapes the language
In the past week or so, anyone following the news might have read that Jon Stewart is “a thorn in the side of politicians”; that Senator Harry Reid of Nevada won reelection “by the skin of his teeth”; and that people in the newspaper industry “see the writing on the wall.”
That well-informed reader wouldn’t have been especially surprised to hear that these phrases all come from the same source, the Bible. It has long been an article of faith among speakers of English that biblical language — especially that of the Authorized, or King James, version, published in 1611 — has been immensely influential. The KJV, wrote linguist David Crystal in 2004, “has contributed far more to English in the way of idiomatic or quasi-proverbial expressions than any other literary source.”
But just how much was that “far more”? Not even Crystal knew, and with the KJV about to celebrate its 400th year, he set out to explore and tabulate its contributions to everyday language. Now, in “Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language,” he has some answers. The short one is “257” — that’s the number of familiar idioms, from “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis) to the whore of Babylon (Revelation), that he credits to the stature and popularity of the King James Bible.
This doesn’t sound like a lot, given some past claims that thousands of phrases are Bible-derived. But Crystal is counting only idioms — the expressions we use and modify freely with no reference to their origins. He excludes what he labels “quotations,” like “the meek shall inherit the earth” — Bible words that are rarely borrowed for reuse in nonreligious contexts. And even that 257 beats Shakespeare, who has fewer than 100 original phrases to his credit.
But Shakespeare was an innovator, notes Crystal, and a prolific coiner of words, if not of phrases. The translators who produced the KJV were conservative, dedicated to continuing a language tradition. Their mandate was to improve on the earlier English Bibles — “to make...out of many good ones, one principall good one.” And in fact, only a handful of our 257 familiar idioms — “how the mighty are fallen,” “to every thing there is a season” — appear only in the KJV.
Crystal displays these variants clearly in a tabular appendix, showing which idioms were preserved from earlier Bibles and which were rewritten. Only the KJV, for instance, has “a thorn in the flesh”; earlier versions had “a prick” or “a sting” or “unquietness,” none as sharp as that thorn. The KJV asks if a leopard can “change its spots,” but the committee might have gone with “a pard may change his diversities,” from the Wycliffe Bible. “Cast thy bread upon the waters” is mysterious, but we manage to use it anyway; “lay thy bread upon wet faces” would not have been so versatile.
Other Bible-based idioms have evolved with use so they no longer reflect any one text. “From the cradle to the grave” was once “womb to the grave”; “pride goes before a fall” condenses four much wordier alternatives; our shorthand “fly in the ointment” no longer spells out the stink of the fly-fouled ointment.
But if you think this is dull, sober scholarship, think again. In Crystal’s definition, an idiom is an adaptable expression, and his 257 phrases have been adapted, twisted, and punned on to a fare-thee-well. “Signs of the times” begets “whine of the times” (on an advice column) and “shine of the times” (for a hair product). “Love of money is the root of all evil” becomes “Money is the root of all baseball” (and so on) and even “Monet is the root of all evil.”
Headline punsters, read this book with caution: When you see what your tribe hath wrought, you may have to conclude that when it comes to biblical wordplay, there’s nothing new under the sun.
HELLO, DARKNESS: When even the calendar publishers can’t get it right, we don’t need to lose any sleep over today’s biannual usage problem. But just for the record, today’s time shift marked the end of this year’s Daylight Saving Time. Not savings; just saving.
There’s no denying that the “savings” version is common — Bryan Garner, in Garner’s Modern American Usage, says it’s the spelling in about one-fourth of print appearances — but why? Garner blames it on a “miscue” — a momentary confusion over the parsing of the phrase.
“Daylight Saving” is meant as a compound adjective, as in space-saving containers, money-saving tips, labor-saving technologies. But the verbal noun savings (“an amount saved”) is also widespread, notes Garner, so “using savings as the adjective — as in savings account or savings bond — makes perfect sense.”
The US government contributes to the problem by styling Daylight Saving Time without a hyphen, probably to keep it (superficially) consistent with Central Standard and the other zone designations. But that (along with the capital letters) is a preference, not a rule. Feel free to lower-case, and to add that clarifying hyphen, as we take our leave of daylight-saving time.
Jan Freeman’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org, she blogs about language at Throw Grammar from the Train (throwgrammarfromthetrain.blogspot.com).