The King James Bible and the English language

Begat: The King James Bible and the English language. By David Crystal. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. viii, 327. ISBN 9780199585854. $24.95.

Reviewed by Kanavillil Rajagopalan, State University at Campinas, Brazil

In this delightful book, David Crystal takes a look at the influence of the Holy Bible on the English language principally (though not exclusively) thanks to its King James’ or so-called Authorized Version. Referring to ‘the myriad contributions of Wycliffe, Tyndale, and many others’ and their ‘linguistic fingerprints’, C says in the closing sentence that ‘they are an essential element in the story of how the English language was “begat”’ (262).

The book has two prologues (the first focusing on the influence of the Bible on the English language and the second alerting the reader as to some problems inherent in the very enterprise and some minor caveats) and an interlude that divides its content chapters into two equal halves. It ends with an epilogue, two appendices, a brief note on the New Testament sources, three indices (expressions, Bible translations, and Books of the Bible), and finally a general index.

Despite this formidable overall design, the book is extremely user-friendly and a veritable delight to read. In forty-two short chapters roughly averaging five pages each, C entertains the reader with a wealth of interesting (and often curious) information on how deeply ingrained many of the expressions from the Bible are in the day-to-day use of the English language by its speakers right across the world. Even more impressive is the fact that many users of the Biblical idiom seldom, if ever, realize that they are indebted to the book every time they resort to an expression like a fly in the ointment or kick the bucket.

The content chapters all have as their headings expressions and English phrases whose origins lie in the Bible, to wit ‘The skin of one’s teeth’ (83–85) and ‘Nothing new under the sun’ (101–09). C points out that some expressions such as two by two (from the Genesis account of Noah and the Flood) have ‘minimal or moderate influence’ (39), others like a coat of many colors have a much wider currency perhaps because people feel attracted to the concept rather than the language per se. Other expressions like fire and brimstone occupy a middle rank in terms of their applicability to new contexts of use.

C conducts his discussion in a captivating and most enjoyable manner. It is both informative and witty. In the chapter titled ‘Begat’ (42–44), this is what he has to say: ‘This archaic past-tense form of beget carries a phonetic punch which has made it a popular stylistic choice among present-day writers commenting on how one thing has led to another. It has even become a book title’ (43).