‘Fly in the ointment’? Assessing the influence of the King James Bible (1611)

‘Fly in the ointment’? Assessing the influence of the King James Bible (1611)

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What is the influence of the King James Bible (1611) on the English language? The claims have sometimes been quite extraordinary, and with the 400th anniversary of publication falling in 2011, the exaggerations have been growing. In an article in The Tablet (3 April 2010) entitled ‘England’s gift to the world’, the MP Frank Field (the director of the trust established to coordinate the anniversary celebrations) quoted Melvyn Bragg to describe the King James Bible (KJB) as ‘quite simply the DNA of the English language’. A striking metaphor, but a misleading one. DNA is in every cell we possess; but the KJB is by no means in every word we write.

On the contrary. There are actually many features of KJB style that are no longer used or liked in English. Not used? Consider a sentence such as ‘In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die’, where much of the grammar is obsolete. Not liked? I suspect many of you were taught that it was ‘bad grammar’ to begin a sentence with And. But what do we find in the opening chapter of Genesis?—thirty-one verses, all but two of them beginning with And—’And God said… And God made…’. Only the opening verse (‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth’) and verse 27 (‘So God created…’) do otherwise.

Counting idioms

When people talk about the influence of the King James Bible they are usually thinking about the idioms it contains, or rather more vaguely about its thematic content, imagery, and rhythmical style. Though now widely known as the Authorized Version, the 1611 translation, while favourably received, was adopted only gradually in the decades after publication as churches replaced their existing copies of the Geneva (1560) and Bishops’ (1568) bibles. Only after the Restoration of Charles II (1660) did the KJB gain its dominant status in Anglican worship, revered as both a religious and a literary text. One of the first writers to draw on the 1611 version as a source of inspiration was John Milton (1608-1674), many of whose lines show a clear influence, at times to the point of exact phrasing, as in ‘She gave me of the tree, and I did eat’ (Paradise Lost, Book X). The King James version also entered auditory consciousness too, for it was frequently read aloud—a practice aided by the punctuation, which is more an aid to speech than a guide to grammar.

For my book, Begat. The King James Bible and the English Language (2010), I tried to put a precise figure on the question of idioms. Estimates here have varied enormously. Everyone who writes about the KJB in relation to the history of English quotes a few examples, such as out of the mouths of babes and fly in the ointment, but nobody has established just how many such items there are in the work as a whole. When I ask people for a figure, I receive answers ranging from a hundred to a thousand. To resolve the question once and for all, I went through the whole work looking out for any expression that I felt had come to be a part of modern English, whether people were aware of the biblical connection or not. And I made two discoveries. First, there aren’t as many of them as people suggest: I found only 257. (Other readers with different mindsets might increase this total a little, but not by much.) Second, most of these expressions don’t originate in the King James translation at all. Rather, they are to be found in William Tyndale‘s version nearly a century earlier, or in the Bishops’ Bible of 1568, or one of the other major sixteenth-century translations. By my count, only 18 expressions are unique to the 1611 version. They include how are the mighty fallen, the root of the matter, and a thorn in the flesh. I looked at only five other translations to arrive at this figure. Examining others might make this total fall further.

The small figure shouldn’t be a surprise. We need to remember that the aim of the translators, as they made clear in their preface, was not to make a new translation, ‘but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principall good one’. They had little choice in the matter, as the guidelines for their work, which had been approved by King James I, required them to use the Bishops’ Bible (in the 1602 edition) as their first model, making as few alterations as possible; and, when this was found wanting, they could refer to earlier versions. Unlike Shakespeare, they were not great innovators.

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The King James Bible and the OED

A similar small figure emerges when we look at the first recorded instances from the King James Bible in the OED. An online search for the 1611 Authorized Version reveals it as the first source for 43 new headwords:

abased (adj.), accurately, afflicting (n.), almug, anywhither, armour-bearer, backsliding (adj.), battering-ram, Benjamite, catholicon, confessing (n.), crowning (adj.), dissolver, epitomist, escaper, espoused (adj.), exactress, expansion, Galilean (n.), gopher, Gothic (adj.), grand-daughter, Hamathite, ingenuously, Laodicean (n.), light-minded, maneh, miscarrying (adj.), Naziriteship, needleworker, night-hawk, nose-jewel, palmchrist, panary, peaceable kingdom, phrasing (n.), pruning-hook, Sauromatian, shittah, skewed, way-mark, whosesoever, withdrawing (adj.)

Compare this with other translations through which we can trace earlier, and greater, contributions to the development of English: for example, the 1400 OED entries that cite the Wycliffite Bible as first evidence (a1382); the 200 entries from both the Coverdale Bible (1535) and later Wycliffite version (c.1425) respectively; and the 128 entries derived from Tyndale’s version. If we expand the terms of reference to include first recorded senses (i.e. new meanings of existing words), the contribution of the KJB, as recorded in the OED Online, increases to over 300, including bushy (of hair), to cut short (a speaker), muddy (of thought), and lost sheep to describe someone who strays from an expected course. But once again, this falls short of first recorded senses citing earlier translations—nearly 4000 for the fourteenth-century Wycliffite, close to 1000 for the Coverdale, and more than 400 for Tyndale’s Bible. (Figures for the KJB would, of course, be still lower if ongoing revision were to discover earlier citations.)

These small totals mean that we should not exaggerate the influence of the KJB on English. It’s true to say, as several commentators do, that no other literary source has matched the 1611 edition for the number of influential idioms that it contains; but it isn’t true to say that the King James originated all of them. Rather, what it did was popularize them. It gave the idioms a widespread public presence through the work being ‘appointed to be read in Churches’. The work was never ‘authorized’ (despite its popular name) in any legal sense, but no other translation reached so many people over so long a period as the King James version.

The result was that an unprecedented number of biblical idioms captured the public imagination, so much so that it’s now impossible to find an area of contemporary expression that doesn’t from time to time use them, either literally or playfully. We find them appearing in such disparate worlds as nuclear physics, court cases, TV sitcoms, recipe books, punk rock lyrics, and video games, and being adapted in all kinds of imaginative ways to suit their new settings. The banking crisis produced Am I my Lehman Brothers’ keeper? A political confrontation produced Bush is the fly in Blair’s ointment. No other work has generated so many variations. The adaptations are legion. It is in this sense that the influence of the King James is without parallel.

Further reading

  • David Crystal, Begat. The King James Bible and the English Language (2010)

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Where next with the OED Online?

  1. there’s more on the development of early modern English in an overview article, written by Edmund Weiner, deputy editor of the OED. A growing list of commentaries on English in time, charting historical lexicography from Old English to the modern day, is also available.
  2. in addition to those entries traced to the King James Bible, the OED Online includes nearly 2500 words for which the first quotation dates from 1611; of these just under 100 relate to the category of ‘religion and belief’, including hermitress, secularize, and unnun (v.)

How do I search for these? with subscriber access to the OED Online you can search for new entries and new meanings by date. Use Advanced Search / date of entry— your results list can then be further refined (in this case by Subject / ‘religion and belief’). Or you can search the complete OED Online for words by subject, again using Advanced Search or Browse / Categories. Results can also be displayed as a Timeline, as in this case for all words relating to Religion and belief.

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