Hats off to the great David Crystal. I read a few of his books at college, and found each of them on its own worth taking my hat off to, but on this occasion I’m taking off my hat – and urging you to take off your hat – to Crystal’s quixotic dedication to the cause of linguistic thoroughness: he’s only gone and read the bloody Bible from beginning to end. Twice.
To mark the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, Crystal rootled through the damn thing from In The Beginning to Amen (Apocrypha included). Why? To determine the truth of the widely accepted proposition that the KJB gave us hundreds of now-commonplace turns of phrase – that it is, as Melvyn Bragg put it, ‘quite simply the DNA of the English language’.
Turns out it’s no such thing.
“I looked out for any phrase 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 are not as many of them as people suggest. In fact, I found only 257. And, second, most of these do not originate in the King James translation at all. Rather they are to be found in Tyndale’s translation nearly a century earlier, or the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 (in the 1602 edition used by the King James translators), or Wycliffe’s translation (the first into English, in 1388), or one of the other major versions of the 16th century. By my count, only 18 expressions are unique to the King James Bible.”
The KJB fills 38 pages of possibly my favourite book, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, so I’ve always assumed it to be the bees’ knees, Bible-wise. But it seems that King James isn’t much of an advance on Wycliffe (still, I’m not as much of an idiot as Melvyn Bragg). So to commemorate the 525th anniversary of the first Wycliffe Bible in 2013, I plan to read the whole thing all the way through (all the way from In the bigynnyng God made of nouyt heuene and erthe to Amen). Three times.
Just to make sure that it really is the tissue of mistruths, myths and Iron Age fairytales I’ve always taken it to be. Don’t worry, I’m fairly certain it will be.