Thursday, January 20, 2011

Review: "Begat: The King James Bible & the English Language"


Title: Begat: The King James Bible & the English Language
Author: David Crystal

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Linguistics Year
Published: 2010
Number of Pages: 327
Binding: Hardback
ISBN13: 978-0-19-958585-4
Price: $24.95

Reviewed by Curt Bench for the Association for Mormon Letters

"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth;" "Am I my brother's keeper?" "Man does not live by bread alone;" "Turn the other cheek." Probably only the most biblically illiterate would not recognize those well-known sayings as coming from the Bible--King James to be precise. But how many know that "a man after his own heart;" "escaped by the skin of my teeth;" "turned the world upside down," and even the unlikely "Be horribly afraid;" have the same origin. Well, to be precise, some of the above are not exactly the way they are found in the KJV, but certainly their origin lies therein.

Alan G. Thomas wrote that "no book has had greater influence on the English language" than the King James Bible. David Crystal, probably the world's most respected authority on the English language and author of many noted books on linguistics and English, wanted to find out if that statement were true. He set out to determine just how many "idiomatic or quasi-proverbial expressions" in English have been contributed by the King James Bible, in some cases influenced by its predecessors. Crystal does not give us the answer until the end of the book. Everything sandwiched between the Prologue and the Epilogue is the meat of this endlessly informative, fascinating, and even entertaining book. For a word lover such as I, who has an entire bookcase filled with reference books on the English language with an emphasis on word and phrase origins and quotations, *Begat* was like manna from heaven.

Crystal identifies every such expression that has found its way into English usage, cites the KJV reference (often comparing corresponding passages with six of its predecessor translations), analyzes it, and gives examples of how it was used early on and is used today or has been adapted, often with clever or humorous results. He points out that it is remarkable that biblical phrases may be used "for a catchy title for a book, film, or pop song," or to "grab a reader's attention" in some creative way. We can find a surprisingly high number of biblical expressions in very disparate nonbiblical settings from TV sitcoms to recipe books and punk rock lyrics to video games. "Those are the worlds this book will explore."

One chapter, "My brother's keeper," serves as a good example of how Crystal accomplishes his object. He quotes the story of Cain and Abel, points out that it is found in virtually every translation, and shows how it has been used for decades in modern times in a variety of ways such as titles of TV series episodes (including *Law and Order* and *ER*), songs, books, and even that of a punk rock band, the *Brothers Keepers.* The variant, "*Thy* Brother's Keeper," is one of 800 instances found on Google. He quotes Barack Obama who said: "Now, more than ever, we must dedicate ourselves to the notion that we share a common destiny as Americans-that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper." He cites several different iterations of the expression, some quite clever and funny, wryly pointing out that the cleverest "was the first person to tell the joke about the ape in the zoo caught reading Darwin and asking, *Am I my Keeper's brother?* "It ceases to be funny after you've seen a hundred online retellings," he observes.

In each of the book's short chapters, Crystal features biblical expressions (original or adapted) that have come down to us over 400 years or more. "Spare the rod . . ."; "out of the mouths of babes;" "blind leading the blind;" "salt of the earth;" "old wives' tales;" "Get thee behind me, Satan;" "the love of money is the root of all evil;" and many more-some more well known than others. He shares the humorous alterations he has found for many of them. "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die" ends with the now familiar "tomorrow we diet." In some, the wording doesn't  change, but the meaning does, sometimes dramatically. An example is  a "candidate for the worst pun in the book: Studios for tattooing and body piercing called *Holier than thou.*"

As I read through the book, I was struck by the number of phrases and expressions that I thought would be of particular interest to Mormons for various reasons. Some will be obvious to LDS readers, others a little more esoteric. Here are several: "Gird up thy loins" (from the hymn, "Come, Come Ye Saints"); "rod of iron;" "still, small voice;" "signs of the times" (used as a title for at least two LDS books); "in the twinkling of an eye" (when you "hie to Kolob"); "shake off the dust under your feet" (many returned missionaries and I can tell some great faith-promoting rumors about a given city that had been "dusted" and thus ended in ruin); "for many are called, but few are chosen" (LDS scripture and also a book title)-a funny variant: "many are cold, but few are frozen;" "jot or tittle" (an LDS game had the name of "Jots and Tittles" and the source of a funny story that I will tell only upon request); "lamb to the slaughter" (words of Joseph Smith upon returning to Nauvoo and certain death); "pearl of great price;" "times and seasons" (title of newspaper in Nauvoo); "as a thief in the night" (title of two books); "vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord" (Brigham Young put his own twist on this one when the original cairn at Mountain Meadows was torn down), and more.

David Crystal has written a book that will teach even the most informed among us something we did not already know about expressions, most of which we have probably read or heard sometime in our lives. But it never comes across as too academic or pedantic; it is written with wit and verve and is very engaging. Although I think linguists and other word mavens would find the book entirely satisfying, I believe that any reader with even the slightest interest in words and the Bible will find this book thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining, and hard to put down. By the way, Crystal found 257 expressions used today in English-two-and-a-half times the number of contributions to the language than that of William Shakespeare.  A handy appendix lists each expression, where it is found, and whether (and how) it is rendered in the six different English Bible translations.

"I know for a certainty" that those who do not read it will "reap the whirlwind" and will soon be saying "woe is me." They should "set [their] house in order" for now they "see through a glass darkly." But they will be able to see "eye to eye" with those who have discovered this "pearl of great price" and can then "be of good cheer." I have read and love *Begat.* "Go and do thou likewise."

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