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Begat: The King James Bible & the English Language
Oxford University Press / 2010 / Hardcover
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What do the following have in common?Let there be light -- A fly in the ointment -- A rod of iron -- New wine in old bottles -- Lick the dust -- How are the mighty fallen -- Kick against the pricks -- Wheels within wheels.
They're all in the King James Bible. This astonishing book "has contributed far more to English in the way of idiomatic or quasi-proverbial expressions than any other literary source." So wrote David Crystal in 2004. In Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language he returns to the subject: he asks how a work published in 1611 could have had such an influence on the language and looks closely at what the influence has been. He comes to some surprising conclusions.
No other version of the Bible however popular (such as the Good News Bible) or put upon the church (like the New English Bible) has had anything like the same impact. David Crystal shows how its words and phrases found independent life in the work of poets, playwrights, novelists, and politicians, and how more recently they have been taken up by journalists, advertisers, Hollywood, and hip-hop.
He reveals the great debt the King James Bible owes to its English forbears, especially John Wycliffe's in the fourteenth century and William Tyndale's in the sixteenth. He also shows that the revisions and changes made by King James's translators were crucial to its universal success.
"A person who professes to be a critic in the delicacies of the English language ought to have the Bible at his finger's ends," Lord Macaulay advised Lady Holland in 1831. David Crystal shows how true this is. His book is a revelation.
"Let there be light," "A fly in the ointment," "New wine in old bottles," "How are the mighty fallen," "The salt of the earth." All these everyday phrases owe their popularity to the King James Bible. Indeed, it is said that this astonishing Bible has contributed more to the color and grace of the English language than almost any other literary source.
In Begat, best-selling language expert David Crystal offers a stimulating tour of the verbal richness and incredible reach of the King James Bible. How can a work published in 1611 have had such a lasting influence on the language? To answer this question, Crystal offers fascinating discussions of phrases such as "The skin of one's teeth" or "Out of the mouth of babes," tracing how these memorable lines have found independent life in the work of poets, playwrights, novelists, politicians, and journalists, and how more recently they have been taken up with enthusiasm by advertisers, Hollywood, and hip-hop. He shows, for instance, how "Let there be light" has resurfaced as "Let there be lite," the title of a diet cookbook, and "Let there be flight," the title of an article about airport delays. Along the way, Crystal reminds us that the King James Bible owes much to earlier translations, notably those by Wycliffe in the fourteenth century and Tyndale in the sixteenth. But he also underscores crucial revisions made by King James's team of translators, contrasting the memorable "Am I my brother's keeper" with Wycliffe's "Am I the keeper of my brother."
Language lovers and students of the Bible will be equally enthralled by Begat and its engaging look at the intersection of religion and literature.
David Crystal is the foremost writer and lecturer on the English language, with a worldwide reputation and over 100 books to his credit. He is Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor, and was awarded the OBE for services to the English Language. His books include The Stories of English, The Fight for English, Words, Words, Words, and many more.
Next year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible. Begat joins the volumes that draw attention to the unparalleled influence of the KJV on English language and literature. Crystal, an honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor, U.K. and the author of several books including The Fight for English, undertook to search the entire KJV for every idiom (as distinct from quotations) that has become part of modern English vernacular. This book is the result of that quest. With a brief introduction and an epilogue that specifically answers the quantitative question, "How many did he find?" (answer: 257), the bulk of the book is devoted to the individual expressions and how they appear in modern popular culture. This makes for the kind of eclectic yet entertaining reading that one might tuck into a bathroom book basket. Readers can dip into the book anywhere and discover humorous and bizarre uses of biblical idioms alongside predictably sober and pious usages. An index of expressions directs readers to relevant pages. (Dec.) Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.
"Its reach is impressive."--Washington Post
"Crystal does a great job of showing how the King James Bible played an essential role in 'begetting' the English language. Highly recommended."--Studies in Scripture
"Crystal is rightly known as a highly engaging author and one of the few linguists with a true talent for explaining highly abstract subject matter in a way that is comprehensible and enjoyable for a general readership...his approach is systematic and well chronicled."--Linguist List
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