The King James Bible: reviews
Tom Payne on the influence of the King James Bible on the English Language
By Tom Payne
Published: 5:25PM BST 08 Oct 2010
At school I won a prize (a Mars bar) when we were asked to link biblical quotations to household objects. People were upset when I confessed that all my entries came from the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, but what was I supposed to do? Read the whole Bible? Should I have read it already?
Commentators are increasingly upset that so few people have read the whole book. In the 19th century, the learned would moan that too few readers had managed it in Hebrew: Thomas de Quincey complained that “Bibliolatry” – an excessive love of the King James Version in particular – “depends on ignorance of Hebrew and Greek”. These days it’s thought bad enough to be quoting from the King James Version (KJV) without understanding the context of our quotations. After all, this is what Gordon Campbell resignedly calls “our own monolingual age”.
Campbell’s occasionally interesting book pauses from time to time to consider how the KJV came to hold such a dear place in the hearts of the English-speaking peoples or, at least, in Britain and America. He tells us about variant readings of successive versions, without always sharing their significance, and there are sections that read like a highly necessary but onerous textual introduction to the great work. At least he faithfully reports on the zeal that the translators felt as they went about checking each other’s work, and his own thoroughness is a kind of homage to that.
It falls to David Crystal to explore the impact of that work on our language today. Because these two books appear to be published in tandem by OUP, he leaves to Campbell a discussion of how the translators chose their words in 1611, and the conscious archaisms they allowed to survive. In fact, with very few exceptions, Crystal skips straight ahead to an appraisal of biblical quotations in their current usages.
The result reads like one of those books men in pubs dare Tony Hawks to write; but instead of saying, “Hey, Tony, I bet you can’t shlepp a fridge around Ireland,” someone in a common room might have said, “Hey, David, I bet you can’t find out how many phrases from the Bible we’re still using.” “Bet you I can!” David could have replied, before settling down to read the whole thing – imagine! – and Googling any phrase that still has some resonance for us outside of church.
Crystal’s style is to start with a biblical quotation, and then to hit us with the many newspaper headlines, song lyrics or book titles he can find. His trawl does reveal some real desperation among sub-editors to contrive a phrase that chimes with some half-remembered cadence tinkling all the way back from the 17th century: a story about Gordon Sumner has a fairly respectable “Sting, where is thy sting?” but how did a holiday in India ever fit the words “Goa and do likewise”?
Crystal sometimes considers what it is that has made a phrase more memorable, and one valuable aspect of his book is the discussion of phrases that have come from earlier versions of the Bible than King James’s. In fact, very few of the phrases we appear to recall appear uniquely in King James. “How are the mighty fallen” does appear first in King James. Crystal reckons it has survived because it is more iambic than the earlier “how are the mighty overthrown”. It isn’t really (and Campbell, too, over-diagnoses iambs); but it’s worth pausing for analysis. The word “fallen” is fallen – its second, unstressed syllable lets it fade away.
The author does concede that the number of KJV phrases still echoing today isn’t definitive, and I won’t give it away. The enterprise is murky because “not everyone will share my intuition about what counts as an idiom”. I don’t. Crystal gives up on Exodus as a source for tags without considering “bricks without straw”. So I Googled “bricks without straw” and found it listed in on-line idiom catalogues. The phrase has a Wikipedia entry to itself. Isn’t Wikipedia marvellous? It’s almost as good as the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
* Tom Payne’s translation of Ovid’s The Art of Love (Vintage) is published in February
by Gordon Campbell
354PP, OUP, £16.99
Buy now for £14.99 (PLUS £1.25 p&p) from Telegraph Books
by David Crystal
327PP, OUP, £14.99 from Telegraph Books
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