No book has had greater influence on the English language than the King James Bible. "That's the sort of thing people always say," David Crystal points out in Begat, one of a number of books anticipating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible in 2011. But, he asks, "Is it true?" And if true, exactly how many of its words or idioms have had a permanent influence on the English language? Crystal's answer is that it is indeed true of idiomatic expressions - 18 or 55 or 82 or 257 of them: "your choice".
The imprecision of enumerating such influences is a necessary result of determining exactly what constitutes "influence" and of the fact that some English Bible-based idiomatic expressions, such as "of making many books there is no end", or "o ye of little faith", or "den of thieves", or "apple of his eye," are not originally derived from the King James Bible, but rather from one (or more or several or all) of its English predecessors: Tyndale's, Coverdale's, the Geneva, the Great, or the Bishops' Bible. This should not be surprising, since the intention of the King James Bible translators was to build upon previous versions. Hence, the modest figure of 18 applies to expressions unique to this work, and 257 applies to expressions found therein, but not exclusively. Either number is considerably smaller than the "thousands" of influences often claimed. Crystal usefully charts the precise derivation of each expression in an appendix, and notes the uneven distribution of derivations from among King James Bible books, with New Testament books contributing many more than Old Testament books.
Crystal's text is given over to 42 mini-chapters, each focused on the lasting influence of one biblical expression (or a related group) as an idiomatic or "quasi-proverbial" saying. For example, one chapter finds that "how are the mighty fallen" (2 Samuel i, 19) persists in common parlance but has also been adapted to creative uses, such as newspaper headlines describing falling stock market prices, or, in an instance of wordplay, the title of a football novel, Oh, How the Mighty are Ballin'. "Signs of the times" (Matthew xvi, 3) has been adapted for titles of religious publications, signage companies, and in advertising and publishing: "wines of the times" (wine vintages), "whine of the times" (an agony column), or "swine of the times" (headline about swine flu). And so forth.
His task may be an appropriate one for a linguist and perhaps the brevity of the chapters is suited to the popular audience the publisher appears to be targeting. Yet it seems a somewhat superficial exercise. One's sense is of simply reading an extended list of contemporary references, much of it the result of googling. Crystal himself rightly recognises that "a quantitative account is only a small part of this story". But while he touches on some tantalising propositions as to why certain expressions have lasted so long (iambic rhythms, alliteration, assonance, rhetorical figures) and he notes how expressions have often been adapted over time (through punning and other wordplay), these useful observations are too few.
This is a shame, because these are the issues that make the study of linguistic heritage most interesting and revealing. It seems not unreasonable to expect Crystal ("the world's greatest authority on the English language", according to the dust jacket) to address at least some of these rather more complex issues. Moreover, studying the King James Bible's influence beyond vocabulary to matters of style, grammar and syntax would be more difficult, but would present a fuller picture.
Begat offers a corrective to idealised claims about the King James Bible's influence on English, but one hopes Crystal will, in a future volume, apply his expertise to further examining the subject's complexity and significance.
Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language
By David Crystal
Oxford University Press, 336pp, £14.99
Published 23 September 2010