Queen, English and the King James Bible

Queen, English and the King James Bible November 13, 2023

1611 Authorized King James Bible
iStock image Credit: Nathan Merrill

 

You might be surprised to find that many everyday phrases we use come from the King James Bible.

How many times have you heard the expression, “Another one bites the dust?”

That’s a line from the Queen song, right?

Well…yes and no.  John Deacon certainly used that expression in the song and in its title but he was not the first.

The actual quotation is from the King James Bible, Psalm 72, verse 9: “They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust.”

Whether you were raised in the Christian tradition in the U.S. or in any English-speaking country, or in another tradition altogether, every day you hear expressions and idioms that were first published for widespread use by the literate public in the King James Bible which was first published way back in 1611.

The King James Bible contains many of the figures of speech that we hear and use every day.  Aside from the debates about the translation itself and its political origins, its rich and official-sounding authoritative language, for all its archaism, has become a literary standard in the canon of English literature.  In fact, its influences on our language range beyond specifically theological subjects,  We are likely to call our family members our “flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12) or when someone dies, he or she has “given up the ghost” (Mark 15:37).

We read that the “leopard does not change his spots” (Jeremiah 13:23) or that the “love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10).

We learn of Lot’s wife and the “pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26) and that one can become the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13) if one behaves appropriately.

On the darker side of things, one can come “like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2) or can be a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7) for someone else.

We are warned that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and that “woe is me,” (Psalm 120:5) the “writing is on the wall” (Daniel 5:5).

A few of the everyday idioms that have come to us from the King James Bible:

    • bite the dust
    • go the extra mile
    • to put words in someone’s mouth
    • labor of love
    • wolf in sheep’s clothing
    • the apple of my eye
    • sign of the times
    • land of Nod
    • lamb to the slaughter
    • a fly in the ointment
    • a multitude of sins
    • a man after his own heart
    • by the skin of your teeth
    • charity begins at home
    • eat, drink and be merry
    • fall from grace
    • fat of the land
    • see eye to eye
    • heart’s desire
    • holier than thou
    • scapegoat
    • land of Goshen
    • my brother’s keeper 
    • ​suffer fools gladly
    • forbidden fruit
    • fishers of men
    • golden calf
    • in the beginning
    • prodigal son
    • fatted calf

In his book, Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language David Crystal has identified 257 unique examples of idiomatic expressions found in the King James Bible that are still in regular use today.

Crystal explores the richness of the language in the King James Bible and how it has enhanced our written and spoken language for some 400 years.

He traces the circumstances of the making of the translation and provides an analysis of how it has colored and, in some ways, codified our ideas about many things in our everyday world like the concept of “old wives’ tales” (1 Timothy 4:7) or of wisdom coming from “out of the mouth of babes and sucklings” (Psalms 8:2).

Crystal carefully discusses the sources of the King James Bible and gives proper credit to its predecessors, particularly the translations of John Wycliff (1380s to 1390s) and William Tyndale (c. 1522–1535).  While these translations provided much of the text that was included in the King James Bible, neither of them was made for a reading public.  In fact, William Tyndale was executed for his efforts after escaping England for the Continent and later being apprehended and arrested.  The Church and the Crown could not have the Bible in the hands of the public.

That changed, of course, when King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) wanted a Bible available to the public which, within its text, gave him and his successors a right to rule given by God Almighty.

The King James Bible served his purpose but its usefulness has since far surpassed that temporary and somewhat spurious function.  History has truly shown it to be the most important single document to exist the English language and likely the single most prolific source of idiomatic language which we have today.

The King James Bible has become a foundational literary, inspirational, and language-exalting text for English-speaking people for 400 years no matter what their religious beliefs or traditions and has survived, and in fact thrived, as a theological standard for English-speaking Christians as well.

About William T. Orr, Jr.
William T. Orr, Jr. is a retired educator, most recently the principal of a high school named in the Top 10 in the nation by Newsweek magazine. His school was also named to the Newsweek Top 100 each year while he was principal. Orr has been a teacher, a counselor, and a school administrator. He was influential in working in the district and state to lobby for more equitable pay for educators, and has long been a vocal advocate for more academic freedom for educators. Orr has a B.A. in English Language and Literature, a M.Ed. in Education Administration and Supervision, and an Ed.D. in Education leadership. He’s also completed Postdoctoral study at Yale Divinity School and Dallas Theological Seminary. You can read more about the author here.
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