How the King James Bible brought a “fly in the ointment” to English

HAVE YOU ever fallen flat on your face? Can you read the writing on the wall? Do you ever think about escaping, perhaps by the skin of your teeth before it’s too late? When things are going well, do you look for the fly in the ointment? If you answered “Yes” to these questions, you are in good company.

Shakespeare, however, never fell flat on his face. He couldn’t read the writing on the wall, never once escaped by the skin of his teeth, and his ointment was always free of flies. The Bard, that great master of vocabulary and wordplay, could do none of these things, for these metaphors did not enter the English language until close to the time of his death in 1616. Like so much of the English language, these quaint and timeless expressions were borrowed from another tongue—in this case, Hebrew.

The introduction of classical Hebrew phrases into the language—one of the most interesting developments in the shaping of Modern English—dates from the early 17th century with the arrival of the King James Bible.

The authors of The Story of English, a companion to the PBS television series on the history of the English language, point out that “the King James Bible was published in the year Shakespeare began work on his last play, The Tempest. Both the play and the Bible are masterpieces of English, but there is one crucial difference between them. Whereas Shakespeare ransacked the lexicon, the King James Bible employs a bare 8,000 words—God’s teaching in homely English for everyman.”

True, the Bible used plain and common words, but as American Rabbi William Rosenau observes, it took those words and “molded new forms and phrases, which, while foreign to the English, became with it flesh and bone.” Here’s what happened: The translators believed the best way of ensuring accuracy was to translate each and every word of the original, one by one. This literal translation of the Old Testament’s Hebrew introduced a large number of new, and somewhat unusual, phrases into the English language.

“The [King James Bible] is an almost literal translation of the Masoretic text, and is thus on every page replete with Hebrew idioms,” writes Rosenau in Hebraisms in the Authorized Version of the Bible, a careful study of the way in which the King James Bible translated Hebrew expressions. “The fact that Bible English has to a marvellous extent shaped our speech, giving peculiar connotations to many words and sanctioning strange constructions, is not any less patent.”

Because the Bible’s publicly accessible style could be widely imitated, the new phrases were easily absorbed, often unconsciously, within everyday language. Soon, without anyone completely appreciating what was happening, they began to shape written and spoken English.

Initially, the language of the King James Bible might have seemed odd. We know that some people found it unnatural, artificial, and stilted. John Selden, a 17th-century Hebrew scholar of considerable distinction, doubted whether the widespread use of Hebrew idioms would make sense to the unlearned English public. He insisted that translation required conversion of Hebrew idioms into real English, not Hebraised English.

“Lord, what gear . . .”

“If I translate a French book into English, I turn it into English phrase and not into French English. `Il fait froid’: I say `it is cold,’ not `it makes cold,’” he explained. “But the Bible is translated into English words rather than English phrases. The Hebraisms are kept and the phrase of that language is kept. As for example, `he uncovered her shame,’ which is well enough so long as scholars have to do with it, but when it comes among the common people, Lord what gear do they make of it.” It is interesting to note that Selden’s English makes perfect sense to modern readers until he uses the slang of his period. (“Gear” is here best translated as “nonsense”!)

Selden’s fears proved unfounded. Continuity of usage, through private and public reading of the King James Bible, soon diminished the apparent strangeness of the trans­lation. Hebraic phrases—initially regarded with some amuse­ment—became standard parts of the English language.

English is remarkable in its willingness to invent new words and borrow existing words. Again and again, linguists find changes that reflect encounters with other cultures, so that studying the history of the language is a bit like looking into a verbal melting pot. Hebrew idioms, for example, were easily absorbed into Modern English, even while their origins lay at the dawn of civilization in the Ancient Near East.

So today, when we remind our colleagues that pride goes before a fall [Prov 16:18], or from time to time accuse them of sour grapes [Jer 31:30], or pour out our hearts to them about everything under the sun, let us remember that we are using the vocabulary of ancient Israel, given a new lease on life. Maybe there is nothing new under the sun after all [Eccles 1:9]. Now wouldn’t that be a fly in our ointment [Eccles 10:1]. CH

By Alistair McGrath

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #100 in 2010]

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