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November 23, 2011  |  The KJV in everyday speech  |  6643 hit(s)

The King James Bible (alternately, the Authorized Version or King James Version or KJV) is 400 years old; it was originally printed in 1611. Many people have noted that the book -- specifically, the language of the translation -- has had a widespread impact on everyday English.

For some Friday Fun (tho it's Wednesday, it's a virtual Friday for many in the US), here's a pleasing observation from an article in the latest National Geographic about the creation of the King James Bible. This is by Adam Nicolson, whose book about the KJV is listed below.
If a child is ever the apple of her parents' eye or an idea seems as old as the hills, if we are at death's door or at our wits' end, if we have gone through a baptism of fire or are about to bite the dust, if it seems at times that the blind are leading the blind or we are casting pearls before swine, if you are either buttering someone up or casting the first stone, the King James Bible, whether we know it or not, is speaking through us. The haves and have-nots, heads on plates, thieves in the night, scum of the earth, best until last, sackcloth and ashes, streets paved in gold, and the skin of one's teeth: All of them have been transmitted to us by the translators who did their magnificent work 400 years ago.
Personal anecdote. In my grad school days, I was exposed to a variety of extinct Germanic languages, including Anglo-Saxon and Gothic. Studying these languages often involves Bible readings; in fact, for Gothic, fragments of a Bible translation are the only substantive written text. Early on I acquired a King James Version to aid me in my translation exercises. Although I'd just plucked that version off a shelf full of options at the university bookstore, it proved to have been a good choice. The sometimes archaic language of the KJV is quite close to what I was encountering in my readings, reflecting grammatical anachronisms like second-person plural ("ye"), be as the auxiliary for certain participles ("I am become a stranger unto my brethren"), dative constructs ("salvation to thee"), and such. If I remember right, there might have been instances where untangling the grammar of a text in (e.g.) Gothic actually explained an otherwise odd construction in the KJV.

I say all this as a person who has no connection to the KJV in any sort of religious sense. I understand that some people find the text uplifting independently of the words used to express it :-), but even I in all my secularism, can appreciate the beauty of the language and its impact on that remains in our modern language.

More reading

God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson

Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language by the amazingly prolific David Crystal

In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture by Alister McGrath

King James Version Search. Handy.