WordWatch: Idioms begat by the Bible

In 2011 we’ve been celebrating the 400th birthday of the King James Bible. Bible societies across the English-speaking world organized appropriate festivities, and used the occasion to draw attention to the Bible’s sweeping social and cultural influence over the last 400 years. Language is one place where the Bible has had a powerful impact.

David Crystal is widely recognized as the world’s leading authority on the English language, and his contribution to the KJV’s birthday party is a book called Begat, which looks at the distinctive English idioms that the Bible of 1611 has put into circulation. An idiom is a group of words that has a meaning different from the common meaning of each individual word. For example “pride goes before a fall” is an idiom—and it was put into circulation in the English language by Proverbs 16:18.

This is just one of 257 common idioms in English (yes, Crystal thinks he is able to count them exactly) that derive from the Bible—or, more specifically, from the wide circulation of the King James (or Authorized) Version. The result is that the Bible is quoted frequently by folk who have no idea that they’re quoting the Bible! When someone says “how the mighty have fallen” or “the writing is on the wall” or “den of thieves” or “flesh and blood” or “feet of clay” or “the skin of my teeth”, they’re employing an idiom made popular by the King James Bible.

David Crystal quotes with approval the claim that “no book has had a greater influence on the English language”.1 Although Crystal’s book will not tell you anything about the Bible you don’t already know, it is, for us wordies, a delightful read—a great bedside, bathtub or beach book!

1 David Crystal, Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2010, p. 1.

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