King James Bible: How are the Mighty Fallen?

The linguistic legacy of the King James Bible is immense. But, David Crystal discovers, it is not quite the fount of common expressions that many of its admirers believe it to be.

I did not know what to expect when I began my study of the King James Bible’s influence on the English language. I knew what I did not know – one of Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘known unknowns’ – and that was all. In 2004, in Chapter 11 of my book The Stories of English, I had written this:

The King James Bible – either directly, from its own translators, or indirectly, as a glass through which we can see its predecessors – has contributed far more to English in the way of idiomatic or quasi-proverbial expressions than any other literary source.

But just how many expressions, exactly? Like everyone else who has written on the influence of the King James Bible on the English language, I had listed a few dozen examples – ‘out of the mouths of babes’, ‘fly in the ointment’ and so on – but I had no clear sense of just how many such items there were in the Bible as a whole. Nor, it seems, had anyone else. When I asked people how many idioms like these they thought appeared in the Bible, I received answers ranging from a hundred to a thousand.

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