Let Us Now Praise KJV

This year marks the four hundredth anniversary of an influential translation of the Bible. Scott McLemee hears echoes of it everywhere.

February 16, 2011

Everyone must know the famous statement attributed to Texas Governor “Ma” Ferguson (1875-1961) during a debate over bilingual education in the 1920s: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for Texas schoolchildren.”

Alas, there is no solid evidence that she actually said it. Variations on the formula go back at least to the 1880s. Both the sentiment and the urge to lampoon it were probably around well before that. The remark is, in any case, a tribute to the aura of authority surrounding the King James Version of the Bible. This year marks the 400th anniversary of its publication. Some people regard the translation as almost divinely inspired; and I can see the point, at least at the level of style. (A few fundamentalists do reject it, objecting to the lifestyle of King James, which was sodomitical.)

Now, it has been some while since my shadow darkened a church door. I regard the existence of the Almighty with curious skepticism, and suspect He would return the favor. But when it is necessary to consult the Bible, there is simply no question of whether or not to use the KJV. It is the only one with any flavor; the rest are as appetizing as a sawdust sandwich.

Belief is not a prerequisite for celebrating the KJV. The critic and essayist Dwight Macdonald put it best: “The King James Bible came at the end of the Elizabethan age, between Shakespeare and Milton, when Englishmen were using words more passionately, richly, vigorously, wittily, and sublimely than ever before or since. Although none of the divines and scholars who made it were literary men, their language was touched with genius -- the genius of a period when style was the common property of educated men rather than an individual achievement.”

The quadricentennial has inspired a flood of monographs on the history and literary intertextuality of the Authorized Version, as the translation is also known. It would be steady work just to keep up with these publications. “Of making many books,” sayeth the Preacher, “there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” But one recent volume, David Crystal’s Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language (Oxford University Press), is both scholarly and diverting -- something the reader can dip into, when and where the mood strikes. On this anniversary it reminds us just how ubiquitous the KJV's influence is.

The dust jacket describes David Crystal as “the world’s greatest authority on the English language.” I pass this statement along without necessarily endorsing it. If someone else feels they have claim to the heavyweight title, take it up with Oxford UP. He has certainly recognized and assembled an enormous number of examples of how turns of phrase found in the KJV still echo in literature, politics, journalism, popular culture, and everyday speech. Only after finishing this column did it occur to me that Crystal also compiled an interesting volume on how text-messaging affects language, which I wrote about here. The man is a consummate word nerd, by any standard, and his books merit a place on the nightstand of anyone with that disposition.

It is sometimes said that the Authorized Version contains thousands of expressions that have passed into common usage. By Crystal’s reckoning, this is pushing it. He identifies 257 idiomatic English expressions that can be traced to the KJV. That’s plenty: “No other single source,” he writes, “has provided the language with so many idiomatic expressions. Shakespeare is the nearest, but the number of idioms we can confidently attribute to him (such as to the manner born) is under a hundred.”

The expressions he catalogs are words or phrases that have come to circulate without necessarily carrying a religious connotation. In Genesis, for example, we read: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors.” The latter phrase echoes in a song by Dolly Parton, various fashion-magazine articles (“When looking for outerwear this cold-weather season, think coats of many colors”), and a joking reference to guys in a carnival parade (“float of many bubbas”).

A line from Isaiah, and alluded to by St. Paul, reads: “Let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die.” According to Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a rich man whose attitude is expressed as “take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” Somewhere along the way, the expressions fused into a common saying which now inspires headlines such as “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we devalue the pound.” It is also used by people who are going on a diet, though not just yet.

The idiom "fly in the ointment" -- meaning a problem or distracting irritation -- is both very common and somewhat peculiar. Its source is a passage in Ecclesiastes: “Dead flies caused the appointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour; so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honor.” Cut loose from the original context, the image loses the quality of moral warning it had in the original proverb.

Crystal notes that many turns of phrase appearing in the KJV were taken from earlier English translations of the Bible, including “Let there be light.” The Douai-Rheims version (a Roman Catholic translation coeval with the one James commissioned for the Church of England) renders this as “Be light made.” But, Crystal writes, “that never stood a chance of competing in the popular mind with ‘Let there be light,’ whose Beethovenesque ‘te-te-te-tum’ stress pattern reflected more naturally the language’s rhythmical norms.” By contrast, one comedian imagined how Genesis 1:3 would be released by the White House: “The Supreme Being mandated the illumination of the Universe and this directive was enforced forthwith.”

The last time I gave much thought to the KJV's force-field was while reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the book James Agee wrote to accompany photographs of sharecroppers taken by Walker Evans during the Depression. The cadences of his prose and the quality of moral anguish (clearly Agee felt that making art out of other people’s misery was a dubious undertaking, perhaps a sin) revealed the hold that the Bible had on him as a writer. So did his book’s title, drawn from Ecclesiasticus, which the King James translators included in the Apocrypha now often left out of that edition: “Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begot us.”

Begat charts another sort of cultural power the translation has radiated over the past four centuries. Threads of it have become woven into everyday life, in conversation and countless utterly secular usages. Some of this is a matter of allusion: the long shadow of remembered texts. But it also an effect of the literary qualities of the translation -- in particular, its phonetic properties, as Crystal spells out: "especially iambic rhythms (from strength to strength), alliteration (many mansions), assonance (from the cradle to the grave), euphony (still small voice), [and] monosyllabicity (you know not what you do)."

There are passages in the King James Version that have become touchstones of high eloquence ("for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but within are full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness"). But it's in the small points of phrasing that, as Dwight Macdonald said, the translators were touched with genius, if not by some higher power.


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