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The Bible and the English Language

by Sharon Tan

King James Version Bible first edition title page,1611,Wikimedia Commons

Bottomless pit; eat, drink and be merry; white as snow; scapegoat — where did these words and phrases come from? Yes, from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible! Even those who have never stepped into a church make use of them; they have become so much part of the language that their religious origins have been forgotten.

No other book in the English language has introduced as many idioms into the language, not even Shakespeare’s complete works! In 2010, just before the 400th anniversary of the KJV in 2011, linguistics professor David Crystal published Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language (OUP). He counted 257 idioms from the KJV which are still in contemporary use, although only 18 actually originated in the KJV. Many came from earlier English Bibles, chiefly Tyndale’s, and were retained in the KJV. The KJV was simply the means by which these phrases became part of the English language.

References to Bible stories also permeate English literature – apples, serpent, flood, fatted calves, milk and honey, sacrifice, etc. This is not surprising as the Bible was the most widely read book in the English language for centuries. It is arguably impossible to understand the subtler nuances of much of English literature without some familiarity with Bible stories, whatever the religious beliefs of the reader.

Notable early English Bibles

Up till the 15th century, the Bible mainly used by churches in England was the Latin Vulgate. However, from 1382 to 1395, a few translators under the direction of John Wycliffe translated the Bible from Latin into English. Wycliffe believed that every Christian should be taught the Bible in the language that they understood best, just as Jesus had taught his disciples in the language they knew best. Although this English translation was banned by the Church in 1409, copies continued to circulate. Some words and phrases from Wycliffe’s translation include: female, treasure, born again and keys of the kingdom. These were either adapted from the Latin or created, when there was no suitable word in English.

About 100 years later, from 1494 to 1536, William Tyndale and John Coverdale translated the Bible into English from Greek and Hebrew texts. They were able to make use of the new technology of the printing press to produce many copies which were circulated widely. Some words and phrases that first appeared in the Tyndale Bible include: fisherman, sorcerer, blind lead the blind and brother’s keeper.

By 1604, there were several English versions of the Bible in circulation besides Tyndale’s. Different versions were favoured by different factions, and so King James I of England (also James VI of Scotland) sought to unite his people and consolidate his influence through one universally accepted version of the Bible. He ordered 50 scholars to work on a new translation, but also insisted that they retain the use of familiar terms and names from earlier English versions. He placed a high value on the resulting text being readable and understandable in the common language of the day. The final product was not just intended for scholars or the clergy, but to be read aloud in churches since many people were illiterate. The result was a book that shaped the language of the English-speaking world.

So, while Christians value the Bible as the inspired Word of God, the Bible has also influenced all English-speaking cultures and anyone who has contact with English literature (even if translated into another language), whatever their beliefs. A wonderful book indeed!

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