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Review of  Begat

Reviewer: Clay Hunter Williams
Book Title: Begat
Book Author: David Crystal
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.2368

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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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0199695180
ISBN-13: 9780199695188
Pages: 336
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