LINGUIST List 23.2368

Thu May 17 2012

Review: Historical Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Crystal (2011)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 17-May-2012
From: Clay Williams <>
Subject: Begat
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Announced at

AUTHOR: David CrystalTITLE: BegatSUBTITLE: The King James Bible & the English LanguagePUBLISHER: Oxford University PressYEAR: 2011

Clay H. Williams, English for Academic Purposes Department, Akita InternationalUniversity, Japan

SUMMARYAs David Crystal lays out in the first prologue, Begat: The King James Bible &the English Language was written to answer a personal question. After showcasingquotes from an assortment of literary, film, and political luminaries allasserting that the King James Bible had had a singularly profound effect on thedevelopment of the English language, which still reverberates in modern speechand usage, and after noting that he had made the same basic argument in his ownbook, The Stories of English (2004), he realized that there had been nodefinitive research to quantify that edition of the Bible's effect on modernEnglish. While we are aware of many idioms and expressions, and while many listsof such idioms are available, there had never been any attempt to ascertain adefinitive number of Bible-derived idioms. Crystal evaluates the extent of theKing James edition's impact on modern English.

In the second prologue, he reviews some inherent limitations of this sort ofcorpus study. Firstly, the idea of shaping language is subject to someinterpretation and he consciously attempts to separate expressions that havethoroughly seeped into daily use -- often with the speaker being completelyunaware of the Biblical origin of the phrase -- as opposed to well-known quoteswhich nonetheless enjoy no real use outside of formal religious settings.Additionally, one must acknowledge that the King James Bible was not created exnihilo, but relied extensively on earlier translations such as Tyndale's or theBishop's Bible. As he reviews idiom candidates, he conscientiously compares thelanguage employed with earlier English-language versions.

The first half of the book (Chapters 1-21) focuses on the Old Testament, takingan ordinal approach to the Biblical text, starting in Genesis, and working hisway to Malachi. The number of derived idioms varies considerably from book tobook, causing some books (especially Genesis!) to merit several chapters,whereas other books get skipped outright as having made no recognizablecontribution to modern language. For each idiom, he reviews the phrasingvariations across different translations, and then takes the reader on a journeyof the various ways that the phrase has popped up in modern use. His primarydata source is targeted web searches of phrases plus variants. He describes thevarious uses of the phrase in advertising, film, publishing, etc., but alsosearches for creative variations by journalists, advertisers, and the like(e.g., "let there be light" being adapted to such phrases as "let there befright," "let there be Knight," "let there be height," etc.). Such playfuladaptation, Crystal argues, is a fine means of assessing the depths to whichindividual idioms and phrases have penetrated popular conscience, as theyrequire an expectation on the part of the author that the audience wouldrecognize 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 andEve have influenced everything from botany to Cockney slang. Adam often shows upin expressions by himself, such as in "wouldn't know [someone] from Adam" or inthe common reference of the thyroid cartilage as the "Adam's apple." Theexpression "Adam and Eve" is obviously derived from the Biblical text, but doesnot 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 chaptername is derived from. The author's web search turns up no shortage (over onemillion!) of hits on this phrase, with only about 10% relating directly to theGenesis text. He finds plenty of creative variants, indicating a relatively highlevel of acceptance into standard vernacular.

Ch. 3, "Be fruitful and multiply," reviews a few phrases from the first chapterof 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 lifeof its own, proving quite fruitful (sorry -- couldn't resist!) to creativewriters. Next, chapter 4, "My brother's keeper," traces the title phrase fromGenesis four to a plethora of creative adaptation with each word lending itselfto 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 aBiblical 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 andtwo", 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 wellas some which changed meaning in the popular usage due to semantic shift invocabulary, such as in the case of "land of Nod" (Genesis 4:16). Continuing tochapter 6, "A coat of many colours," Joseph's renowned coat is shown to havesparked an abundance of popular references (particularly in the clothingindustry). The phrasing, however, is not unique to the King James Bible, andwas, in fact, the same in most pre-King James English translations.

Ch. 7, "Fire and brimstone," lists a few turns of phrase that show occasionalreferential use in popular culture (most notably "Babel") before turning to thetitle phrase. The author argues that it is a fairly clear case of the King JamesVersion (KJV) setting the definitive phrasing, as the tendency with othertranslations was to reverse the phrase ordering (i.e., "brimstone and fire");however, the repeated stressed-unstressed syllable pattern of the KJV, beinginnately 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 impactof its genealogical listings. The term "begat," while having an archaic ring toit, is still a favorite choice of writers who want to pack a rhetorical punchwhile implying how something leads to something else. Curiously, the word seemsto have been interpreted by some as a verb unto itself (rather than as the pasttense form of "beget"), leading to forms like "will begat."

Ch. 9, "Thou shalt not," begins the foray into Exodus, taking up quite possiblythe best known portions -- the ten commandments. The phrase "ten commandments"has itself been the source of much mimicry and parody in popular culture, but itis the rhetorical impact of the negative command "thou shalt not" has opened upthe floodgates of imitation. The next chapter, "Manna, milk, and honey," givesus 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 beenapplied to a variety of locales, and is a favorite descriptor for tourismadvertisements. 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 idiomsderived from Exodus. Here, the author finds several linguistic dead ends, orinteresting semantic shifts in phrasing (such as flesh pots, which, in the KJVsimply meant "pots of meat," but now bears a decidedly more "carnal"interpretation. The title phrases, well known to most are "eye for eye, toothfor tooth" (Exodus 21:24), and "girded loins" (although, most references to thelatter 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 windsthrough the remainder of the Pentateuch. After Genesis and Exodus, theavailability of readily-usable idioms slows dramatically, but the author stilluncovers expressions such as "unclean," "scape goat," the chapter title phrase,and "thorn in [someone's] side." Next, chapter 13, "Bread alone," gives usseveral idiom candidates from Deuteronomy; however, with the exception on thetitle phrase (which gains currency through Jesus' repetition of the phraseduring 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 idiomswhich have spawned countless imitation. In addition to the chapter title, 2Samuel 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 offruitless chapters, the author again starts to hit a rich vein of derived idiomsin the book of Job. Many expressions, such as "as old as the hills," "from thecradle to the grave," and the chapter title, while not stated in so many wordswithin the KJV, are obviously derived from specific quotations in the book.Continuing to chapter 16, "Out of the mouths of babes," the author recounts somesurprising idioms derived from the book of Psalms. Expressions such as "deepwaters" (indicating danger in the figurative sense), "at wit's end," "bite thedust," and the title phrase are all shown to be likely derived directly from aBiblical 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 theoriginal Biblical text. The title phrase has undergone considerable contraction,and "spare the rod" (13:24) did not carry the familiar ending until coined bySamuel Butler (1662). The phrase twoedged sword (5:4) has mutated in popularusage to "double-edged" and has experienced a semantic shift (the originalsimply indicated "sharp" or "dangerous"). Ecclesiastes has proven a rich sourcefor 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 raceis not to the swift," and "two heads are better than one" have experienced nosmall amount of creative imitation.

Ch. 19, "Fly in the ointment," recounts one of the expressions that is leastlikely to be recognized as Biblically-derived. The phrase, originating fromEcclesiastes 10:1 has become common usage.Isaiah proves to be fertile ground for idioms, as we see in Ch. 20, "No peacefor the wicked." Phrases such as "swords into plowshares," "eat, drink[, andmake merry]; for to morrow we die," and "no peace for the wicked" (morepopularly 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 presentationalstyle is changing. Due to the repetitive nature of the Gospels, having fouraccounts of the same events -- often using very similar language and turns ofphrase, the author henceforth arranges chapters topically, instead of ploddingthough 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 alight under a bushel," "let your light shine before men," "the blind leading theblind," etc. are discussed. In chapter 23, " Eyes, ears, cheeks," the author ourattention on idioms about parts of the body. Numerous expressions, such as "thetwinkling 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 itfrom the rooftops" and "weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth," and the nextchapter, "Shaking, turning, moving," explains such expressions as "shake thedust 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 "Formany are called, but few are chosen" and "the last shall be first, and thefirst last." The following chapter, "Fights, foes, fools, friends," looks atidioms such as "fight the good fight," "baptism by fire," and "suffer foolsgladly."

In Ch. 28, "Praising famous men," the title section diverts from the KJV brieflyto deal with the Sirach 44:1 quotation in order to set up a collection of idiomsusing the masculine generic "man," as in the case of "behold the man" or "theSabbath 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 thesheep 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 sinis death" are discussed.

Ch. 31, "Blessed are the servants," takes up the theme of service, delving intoidioms such as "no man can serve two masters." Particular attention is paid tothe formulation of the beatitudes, which has spawned countless imitation:"Blessed are the…". Next, chapter 32, "Heal thyself," looks into idioms derivedfrom stories of physical maladies. The title section (from Luke 4:23) has seenmuch 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 1Thessalonians 5:1, and has become rather standard parlance. Other expressionsalong the same theme, such as "Alpha and Omega" are similarly discussed. Chapter34, "Birth, life, and death," looks at derived expressions such as "I wish I'dnever been born," "Born again," and "O death, where is thy sting." Next, Ch. 35,"Countries, kingdoms, Armageddon," examines phrases such as "can anything goodcome out of ______," "Armageddon," and "a kingdom divided against itself shallnot stand."

Ch. 36, "Building houses, mansions, sepulchers," leads us to a general theme ofbuilding and construction, with idioms such as, " upon this rock, I will buildmy ____," "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, "Sowingseeds," we delve into the rich assortment of agriculturally themed idioms andexpressions coming from the New Testament. Expressions such as "by their fruitsye shall know them" and "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" areexamined.

Ch. 39, "Salt and wine," treats idioms dealing with eating and drinking; forexample, expressions such as "salt of the earth" and "new wine into oldbottles." Then, chapter 40, "The law, judges, thieves, swords," examines idiomsof crime and punishment. Examples include "a law unto themselves" and "judgenot…". In chapter 41, "Love and charity," the author takes up expressions suchas "love thy neighbor" and "charity shall cover the multitude of sins." Andfinally, chapter 42, "Peace, patience, wrath, whore" rounds out the book withexpressions such as "be of good cheer," "let not the sun go down upon yourwrath," and "vengeance is mine, saith the Lord."

The Epilogue brings us back to the original question of putting a number on theKJV-derived modern expressions, and Crystal puts the total at 257. This total isfurther cut down by the fact many of these expressions are found in the sameform in earlier English Bible translations, and even further by the tendency toreduce or change some of the expressions to better conform to modern Englishnorms. Still, 257 derived idioms is no small feat -- "No other single source hasprovided 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, readerscan compare the language employed in the KJV expressions discussed in the bookwith the five preceding English language Bible translations. He also provides acount of how many expressions he found in each book in the Old and New Testaments.

EVALUATIONBegat was written for a general audience, and as such is reader-friendly,requiring no real linguistics training. Indeed, Crystal is rightly known as ahighly engaging author and one of the few linguists with a true talent forexplaining highly abstract subject matter in a way that is comprehensible andenjoyable for a general readership. Still, despite his attempts to spice up thenarrative with humor, it is essentially a reference book (albeit a somewhatentertaining one). The issue he treats (i.e., enumerating Biblical idioms) isimportant, and he treats it as such. While one may quibble over the methodology-- I can well envision some readers questioning the relative scholarly qualityof simply running thousands of Google searches on the phrasal bits he flags fromthe KJV text -- his approach is systematic and well chronicled.

I did find myself wishing he spent more time on the evolution of the derivedphrases (which he treats in some instances, but not consistently nor in muchdepth) than he did on examples of modern usage. Crystal did not write it as atreatise on the evolution of KJV phrases, but rather to defend and todemonstrate the KJV's unique contributions to the modern English language, andto quantify the number of idioms. The author's criteria for discerning generaluse idioms from exclusively religious language were well defined, and theconclusions are well defended and convincing. The inclusion of "linguistic deadends" (i.e., expressions that were not picked up or highly mutated) were oftenthe most illuminating parts of the book, allowing the author to argueconvincingly about the factors which influenced popular receptiveness to turnsof phrase, and ultimately to argue why the language of the King James versionhad so much more effect on the language as a whole vis-à-vis earlier translations.

In summary, this book will interest casual etymology enthusiasts, Biblicalscholars, or anyone who is curious as to the effect that the King James biblehas had on the English language.

ABOUT THE REVIEWERClay Williams is an assistant professor in the English for AcademicPurposes department of Akita International University. His primary areas ofresearch include cross-script effects on L2 literacy development, lexicalaccess in non-alphabetic script reading, and adapting L2 teachingmethodologies to East Asian classroom contexts.

Page Updated: 17-May-2012