Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language

Diarmaid MacCulloch writes:

David Crystal’s contribution to the KJB’s commemoration is quirky and original in exploring the continuing background hum of Jacobean sacred text. A superior version of the literature which one helpfully shelves for the studious in the lavatory, this is prime material for enjoyable browsing, though it can produce a surfeit of pleasure if read cover to cover at a sitting. It represents the fruits of much labour, based on a clearly exhaustive journey through the KJB text, with page after page scrutinised for familiar phrases to pop up through the thees and thous. Crystal has done a great deal of diligent Googling to locate their uses and perversions in English-speakers’ innumerable efforts at witticisms or arresting newspaper headlines. I do not intend criticism in mentioning the role of Google, for tracking down the ripples from these KJB fragments would hardly have been conceivable without modern search engines, and the exercise does have a serious point. Crystal has subjected to quasi-statistical scrutiny that much repeated claim (which by the end of this year will be even more repeated) that ‘no book has had greater influence on the English language’ than the KJB. The influence is in fact uneven, being strongest from the more exciting bits of the Old Testament, principally Genesis and Exodus, plus Isaiah (a little help there from Handel’s Messiah), then a fairly consistent run of the New Testament, which in modern anglophone conversation is still generally treated more reverently than the Old. The English, being Protestants, have not been much affected by the text of the KJB Apocrypha, and being in large numbers nominally C of E, they have looked to the Prayer Book (and so to Coverdale) as much as the KJB’s update when they make reference to the Psalms. Thanks to Crystal, we can know, rather as Archbishop Ussher knew that the world had been created in 4004 bc, that there are 257 instances of the KJB being the most likely candidate to have created a phrase in current use in English, although the total reduces to 18 if we look austerely for exact phrases with no known source earlier than the KJB.

(LRB 3 February 2011)

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