AUTHOR: David Crystal TITLE: Begat SUBTITLE: The King James Bible & the English Language PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2011
Clay H. Williams, English for Academic Purposes Department, Akita International University, Japan
SUMMARY As David Crystal lays out in the first prologue, Begat: The King James Bible & the English Language was written to answer a personal question. After showcasing quotes from an assortment of literary, film, and political luminaries all asserting that the King James Bible had had a singularly profound effect on the development of the English language, which still reverberates in modern speech and usage, and after noting that he had made the same basic argument in his own book, The Stories of English (2004), he realized that there had been no definitive research to quantify that edition of the Bible’s effect on modern English. While we are aware of many idioms and expressions, and while many lists of such idioms are available, there had never been any attempt to ascertain a definitive number of Bible-derived idioms. Crystal evaluates the extent of the King James edition’s impact on modern English.
In the second prologue, he reviews some inherent limitations of this sort of corpus study. Firstly, the idea of shaping language is subject to some interpretation and he consciously attempts to separate expressions that have thoroughly seeped into daily use -- often with the speaker being completely unaware of the Biblical origin of the phrase -- as opposed to well-known quotes which nonetheless enjoy no real use outside of formal religious settings. Additionally, one must acknowledge that the King James Bible was not created ex nihilo, but relied extensively on earlier translations such as Tyndale’s or the Bishop’s Bible. As he reviews idiom candidates, he conscientiously compares the language employed with earlier English-language versions.
The first half of the book (Chapters 1-21) focuses on the Old Testament, taking an ordinal approach to the Biblical text, starting in Genesis, and working his way to Malachi. The number of derived idioms varies considerably from book to book, causing some books (especially Genesis!) to merit several chapters, whereas other books get skipped outright as having made no recognizable contribution to modern language. For each idiom, he reviews the phrasing variations across different translations, and then takes the reader on a journey of the various ways that the phrase has popped up in modern use. His primary data source is targeted web searches of phrases plus variants. He describes the various uses of the phrase in advertising, film, publishing, etc., but also searches for creative variations by journalists, advertisers, and the like (e.g., “let there be light” being adapted to such phrases as “let there be fright,” “let there be Knight,” “let there be height,” etc.). Such playful adaptation, Crystal argues, is a fine means of assessing the depths to which individual idioms and phrases have penetrated popular conscience, as they require an expectation on the part of the author that the audience would recognize the original, and thus be able to enjoy the creative alteration.
Ch. 1, “In the beginning,” focuses on how the names and personages of Adam and Eve have influenced everything from botany to Cockney slang. Adam often shows up in expressions by himself, such as in “wouldn’t know [someone] from Adam” or in the common reference of the thyroid cartilage as the “Adam’s apple.” The expression “Adam and Eve” is obviously derived from the Biblical text, but does not actually appear in so many words in any translation of the Bible.
Ch. 2, “Let there be light,” focuses on the Genesis 1:3 quote which the chapter name is derived from. The author’s web search turns up no shortage (over one million!) of hits on this phrase, with only about 10% relating directly to the Genesis text. He finds plenty of creative variants, indicating a relatively high level of acceptance into standard vernacular.
Ch. 3, “Be fruitful and multiply,” reviews a few phrases from the first chapter of Genesis that turn up in a variety of creative usages, such as “made in [one’s] image” and “lesser light;” however, the title idiom has taken on a life of its own, proving quite fruitful (sorry -- couldn’t resist!) to creative writers. Next, chapter 4, “My brother’s keeper,” traces the title phrase from Genesis four to a plethora of creative adaptation with each word lending itself to a multitude of adaptations (e.g., your brother’s keeper, my sister’s keeper, my brother’s gatekeeper, etc.).
Ch. 5, “Two by two,” by contrast to most examples in the book, shows where a Biblical idiom was likely influenced by contemporary usage, and not vice versa. First, the King James text declares that the animals entered Noah’s ark “two and two”, and while this translation varied significantly from Tyndale and Wycliffe, the usage was already well recorded in English texts from 600 years before. The “and” was likely changed to “by” due to popular usage in the early 18th century. The chapter recounts a few more linguistic dead-ends from early Genesis, as well as some which changed meaning in the popular usage due to semantic shift in vocabulary, such as in the case of “land of Nod” (Genesis 4:16). Continuing to chapter 6, “A coat of many colours,” Joseph’s renowned coat is shown to have sparked an abundance of popular references (particularly in the clothing industry). The phrasing, however, is not unique to the King James Bible, and was, in fact, the same in most pre-King James English translations.
Ch. 7, “Fire and brimstone,” lists a few turns of phrase that show occasional referential use in popular culture (most notably “Babel”) before turning to the title phrase. The author argues that it is a fairly clear case of the King James Version (KJV) setting the definitive phrasing, as the tendency with other translations was to reverse the phrase ordering (i.e., “brimstone and fire”); however, the repeated stressed-unstressed syllable pattern of the KJV, being innately more pleasing to the English-speakers’ ears, was imminently more memorable.
In Ch. 8, “Begat,” the author ends the portion on Genesis by showing the impact of its genealogical listings. The term “begat,” while having an archaic ring to it, is still a favorite choice of writers who want to pack a rhetorical punch while implying how something leads to something else. Curiously, the word seems to have been interpreted by some as a verb unto itself (rather than as the past tense form of “beget”), leading to forms like “will begat.”
Ch. 9, “Thou shalt not,” begins the foray into Exodus, taking up quite possibly the best known portions -- the ten commandments. The phrase “ten commandments” has itself been the source of much mimicry and parody in popular culture, but it is the rhetorical impact of the negative command “thou shalt not” has opened up the floodgates of imitation. The next chapter, “Manna, milk, and honey,” gives us more expressions from Exodus. “Manna” has proven popular in some contexts, but curiously, most particularly in the set expression “Manna from heaven,” which never occurs in the KJV. “Land of milk and honey,” likewise, has been applied to a variety of locales, and is a favorite descriptor for tourism advertisements. The unusual nature of the collocation (to Westerners, at least), makes the phrasing memorable and attractive, assuring its continued use.
Ch. 11, “Eyes, teeth, and loins,” rounds out the search for popular idioms derived from Exodus. Here, the author finds several linguistic dead ends, or interesting semantic shifts in phrasing (such as flesh pots, which, in the KJV simply meant “pots of meat,” but now bears a decidedly more “carnal” interpretation. The title phrases, well known to most are “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24), and “girded loins” (although, most references to the latter are more likely derived from “gird up thy loins” from 2 Kings and 1 Peter).
Ch. 12, “What hath been wrought,” lists several phrases as the author winds through the remainder of the Pentateuch. After Genesis and Exodus, the availability of readily-usable idioms slows dramatically, but the author still uncovers expressions such as “unclean,” “scape goat,” the chapter title phrase, and “thorn in [someone’s] side.” Next, chapter 13, “Bread alone,” gives us several idiom candidates from Deuteronomy; however, with the exception on the title phrase (which gains currency through Jesus’ repetition of the phrase during his period of temptation by Satan), most (such as “apple of [one’s] eye”) existed well before the KJV.
Ch. 14, “How are the mighty fallen!”: 2 Samuel offers up several useful idioms which have spawned countless imitation. In addition to the chapter title, 2 Samuel 1:20 has seen much imitation: “tell it not in ____, publish it not in ______...”. In chapter 15, “The skin of one’s teeth,” after a long stretch of fruitless chapters, the author again starts to hit a rich vein of derived idioms in the book of Job. Many expressions, such as “as old as the hills,” “from the cradle to the grave,” and the chapter title, while not stated in so many words within the KJV, are obviously derived from specific quotations in the book. Continuing to chapter 16, “Out of the mouths of babes,” the author recounts some surprising idioms derived from the book of Psalms. Expressions such as “deep waters” (indicating danger in the figurative sense), “at wit’s end,” “bite the dust,” and the title phrase are all shown to be likely derived directly from a Biblical origin.
Ch. 17, “Pride goes before the fall,” continues the idiom search in Proverbs, but the idioms here seem to have undergone sizeable transformation from the original Biblical text. The title phrase has undergone considerable contraction, and “spare the rod” (13:24) did not carry the familiar ending until coined by Samuel Butler (1662). The phrase twoedged sword (5:4) has mutated in popular usage to “double-edged” and has experienced a semantic shift (the original simply indicated “sharp” or “dangerous”). Ecclesiastes has proven a rich source for idiomatic innovation, as we see in Ch. 18, “Nothing new under the sun.” Phrases such as the chapter title, “to everything there is a season,” “the race is not to the swift,” and “two heads are better than one” have experienced no small amount of creative imitation.
Ch. 19, “Fly in the ointment,” recounts one of the expressions that is least likely to be recognized as Biblically-derived. The phrase, originating from Ecclesiastes 10:1 has become common usage. Isaiah proves to be fertile ground for idioms, as we see in Ch. 20, “No peace for the wicked.” Phrases such as “swords into plowshares,” “eat, drink[, and make merry]; for to morrow we die,” and “no peace for the wicked” (more popularly known as “no rest…”) are all traced back to here. The author rounds out the Old Testament with a smorgasbord of expressions in Ch. 21, “Be horribly afraid” taken from Jeremiah (e.g., “eat [someone’s] words”), Ezekiel (e.g., “fuel to the fire”), Daniel (e.g., “den of lions”), and Malachi (e.g., “root nor branch” -- today, usually expressed as “root and branch”).
An Interlude explains that, upon entering the New Testament, the presentational style is changing. Due to the repetitive nature of the Gospels, having four accounts of the same events -- often using very similar language and turns of phrase, the author henceforth arranges chapters topically, instead of plodding though in a straightforward, book-by-book manner.
Ch. 22, “Seeing the light,” reviews a popular motif of the New Testament -- idioms and expressions involving light metaphors. Expressions such as “put a light under a bushel,” “let your light shine before men,” “the blind leading the blind,” etc. are discussed. In chapter 23, “ Eyes, ears, cheeks,” the author our attention on idioms about parts of the body. Numerous expressions, such as “the twinkling of an eye,” “[not] a hair of your head,” “turn the other cheek,” and “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing” are scrutinized.
Ch. 24, “Speaking, shouting, wailing, writing,” traces phrases such as “shout it from the rooftops” and “weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth,” and the next chapter, “Shaking, turning, moving,” explains such expressions as “shake the dust from one’s feet,” “faith can move mountains,” and “get behind me, [Satan].” Chapter 26, “Many and few, first and last,” examines expressions such as “For many are called, but few are chosen” and “the last shall be first, and the first last.” The following chapter, “Fights, foes, fools, friends,” looks at idioms such as “fight the good fight,” “baptism by fire,” and “suffer fools gladly.”
In Ch. 28, “Praising famous men,” the title section diverts from the KJV briefly to deal with the Sirach 44:1 quotation in order to set up a collection of idioms using the masculine generic “man,” as in the case of “behold the man” or “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Chapter 29, “Sheep, goats, swine,” devotes space to animal imagery, yielding such expressions as “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” “casting pearls before swine,” and to “divide the sheep from the goats.” Moving on to chapter 30, “Money, wages, pearls, mites,” pecuniary idioms such as “money is the root of all evil” and “the wages of sin is death” are discussed.
Ch. 31, “Blessed are the servants,” takes up the theme of service, delving into idioms such as “no man can serve two masters.” Particular attention is paid to the formulation of the beatitudes, which has spawned countless imitation: “Blessed are the…”. Next, chapter 32, “Heal thyself,” looks into idioms derived from stories of physical maladies. The title section (from Luke 4:23) has seen much creative mimicry. Also of note, the phrase “to touch the hem of [clothing]” is shown to have been put to quite a bit of use.
In Ch. 33, “Times and seasons,” the title section is derived from 1 Thessalonians 5:1, and has become rather standard parlance. Other expressions along the same theme, such as “Alpha and Omega” are similarly discussed. Chapter 34, “Birth, life, and death,” looks at derived expressions such as “I wish I’d never been born,” “Born again,” and “O death, where is thy sting.” Next, Ch. 35, “Countries, kingdoms, Armageddon,” examines phrases such as “can anything good come out of ______,” “Armageddon,” and “a kingdom divided against itself shall not stand.”
Ch. 36, “Building houses, mansions, sepulchers,” leads us to a general theme of building and construction, with idioms such as, “ upon this rock, I will build my ____,” “many mansions,” and “bottomless pit.” In chapter 37, “Millstones, crosses, yokes, pricks,” we look at expressions such as “a millstone around [someone’s] neck,” and “cross to bear.” Continuing to chapter 38, “Sowing seeds,” we delve into the rich assortment of agriculturally themed idioms and expressions coming from the New Testament. Expressions such as “by their fruits ye shall know them” and “whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” are examined.
Ch. 39, “Salt and wine,” treats idioms dealing with eating and drinking; for example, expressions such as “salt of the earth” and “new wine into old bottles.” Then, chapter 40, “The law, judges, thieves, swords,” examines idioms of crime and punishment. Examples include “a law unto themselves” and “judge not…”. In chapter 41, “Love and charity,” the author takes up expressions such as “love thy neighbor” and “charity shall cover the multitude of sins.” And finally, chapter 42, “Peace, patience, wrath, whore” rounds out the book with expressions such as “be of good cheer,” “let not the sun go down upon your wrath,” and “vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.”
The Epilogue brings us back to the original question of putting a number on the KJV-derived modern expressions, and Crystal puts the total at 257. This total is further cut down by the fact many of these expressions are found in the same form in earlier English Bible translations, and even further by the tendency to reduce or change some of the expressions to better conform to modern English norms. Still, 257 derived idioms is no small feat -- “No other single source has provided the language with so many idiomatic expressions” (p. 258). He does, however, caution against the hyperbole sometimes expressed which would assert “thousands” of Biblically derived idioms and phrases. In the Appendixes, readers can compare the language employed in the KJV expressions discussed in the book with the five preceding English language Bible translations. He also provides a count of how many expressions he found in each book in the Old and New Testaments.
EVALUATION Begat was written for a general audience, and as such is reader-friendly, requiring no real linguistics training. Indeed, Crystal is rightly known as a highly engaging author and one of the few linguists with a true talent for explaining highly abstract subject matter in a way that is comprehensible and enjoyable for a general readership. Still, despite his attempts to spice up the narrative with humor, it is essentially a reference book (albeit a somewhat entertaining one). The issue he treats (i.e., enumerating Biblical idioms) is important, and he treats it as such. While one may quibble over the methodology -- I can well envision some readers questioning the relative scholarly quality of simply running thousands of Google searches on the phrasal bits he flags from the KJV text -- his approach is systematic and well chronicled.
I did find myself wishing he spent more time on the evolution of the derived phrases (which he treats in some instances, but not consistently nor in much depth) than he did on examples of modern usage. Crystal did not write it as a treatise on the evolution of KJV phrases, but rather to defend and to demonstrate the KJV’s unique contributions to the modern English language, and to quantify the number of idioms. The author’s criteria for discerning general use idioms from exclusively religious language were well defined, and the conclusions are well defended and convincing. The inclusion of “linguistic dead ends” (i.e., expressions that were not picked up or highly mutated) were often the most illuminating parts of the book, allowing the author to argue convincingly about the factors which influenced popular receptiveness to turns of phrase, and ultimately to argue why the language of the King James version had so much more effect on the language as a whole vis-à-vis earlier translations.
In summary, this book will interest casual etymology enthusiasts, Biblical scholars, or anyone who is curious as to the effect that the King James bible has had on the English language.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Clay Williams is an assistant professor in the English for Academic
Purposes department of Akita International University. His primary areas of
research include cross-script effects on L2 literacy development, lexical
access in non-alphabetic script reading, and adapting L2 teaching
methodologies to East Asian classroom contexts.