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on 14 April 2011
It's been 400 years since the King James Bible was published in 1611, and it is often referred to as a source of great influence on the English language. Consider these commonly used phrases: `A fly in the ointment', 'How are the mighty fallen', `Let there be light', `New wine in old bottles `, `The salt of the earth', and `The skin of one's teeth'. Each of these phrases owes its popularity to the King James Bible.

But is it true that no book has had a greater influence on the English language? To answer this question, David Crystal, a professor of linguistics, has sifted through the King James Bible and compared it to six earlier translations. While acknowledging that the King James Bible owes much to those earlier translations - especially those by Wycliffe (14th century) and Tyndale (16th century) there are also some key revisions. Consider the impact of `Am I my brother's keeper?' with Wycliffe's `Am I the keeper of my brother?'

English has changed in the past 400 years and while (most of us at least) no longer use the exact same language of the King James Bible, David Crystal has looked at idiom rather than quotation to demonstrate its influence. David Crystal has counted 257 phrases or words that are now idiomatic, and they are each listed and discussed in the book. While only 18 of these idioms take the exact form shown in the King James Bible, 7 exact forms come from other translations. Interestingly, in 37 cases the King James antecedent has been rewritten while in the other 196 cases, the form of words in the King James Bible is paralleled in an earlier translation: the majority (160) in the Geneva Bible of 1560. There's a marvellous 38 page table setting out the occurrence of David Crystal's 257 identified idioms in the different versions of the bible chosen.

So, what is the difference between Bible quotation and idiom? Bible quotations are characterised by being used only in settings where their religious application is relevant, and they maintain their original sense, for example: `Behold a virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a son.' A biblical idiom that has entered the language will, in contrast, also be used by non-believers, will often have a change of meaning and will frequently (and sometimes humorously) be adapted, for example: `Let there be lite'.

David Crystal acknowledges that his classification is to some extent subjective and that other people may arrive at a slightly different number. So, what does this mean? Well, those that claim that there are thousands of examples are wrong. While 257 may not seem a particularly large number, a similar method applied to the writings of Shakespeare arrives at a total of about 100.

Fascinating stuff for those of us interested in the English language.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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on 18 April 2011
Having never read any of other Crystal's works, I came to this with a fairly fresh pair of eyes. As other reviewers have noted, the book is broken down into tiny, bitesize chapters, making it a great coffee table book that can be dipped into. There is no running narrative, so it doesn't matter where you choose to start from (so long as you've read the introduction first).

Now I must confess to reading this from a certain angle; I'm a Christian, and have always been interested in the accuracy of translations of the Bible, as well as the history of how the collection of books (because it is not very accurate to refer to the compendium as a single book) was compiled. Now Crystal is not a theologian, so there is no real analysis comparing the KJV to such sources and the Masoretic Scripts or the Septuagint or any particular comment on what is a 'good' translation. Instead, what we have are numerous examples of how phrases found in the KJV have found their way into the English vernacular, as well as possible reasons for why they have stuck.

Crystal's hypothesis is that the dominant factor is rhythm, and this is noted by looking at some earlier English translations of the Bible (which were banned by the catholic church) such as Wycliffe where the wording differed slightly and seeing which version caught on. The style of the book is quite repetitive, which could make for a dull reading if going through it cover to cover. Rather, I preferred to dip into it and just do a couple of chapters a day, intermittent with other reading.

That said, I did enjoy it a lot and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the English language. Crystal's sources are very broad and include numerous references to online blogs. It may be questioned whether some of the modern cultural references will stand the test of time as well as the idioms discussed are, and I got the distinct impression that this was meant to be read at this time (the 400th anniversary of the publication of KJV).
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on 3 August 2011
Anybody familiar with Professor Crystal's impressive literary output so far - particularly 'The Stories of English' - may, like me, be surprised and wholly disappointed by this offering. Having struggled to finish this volume as an 'end to end' read, one can only recommend it as a coffee-table book designed to occupy idle moments of the day.

My criticism? The sheer repetition that lies herein. Each paragraph is formulaic to the point of tedium: firstly, an explanation of the original context of a particular biblical expression, secondly, its distortion over time and transmission into common usage, and finally how the expression has been punned on by various journalists, authors and writers of late. Two or three chapters of this stuff is revealing and light-hearted enough, admittedly, but after forty-two chapters one is left distinctly underwhelmed by the sheer weight of superficial trivia presented. The examples of how biblical phrases have been manipulated to give modern-day comic affect are particularly lame. Is anybody really interested in a never-ending catalogue of some of tabloid journalism's most cringe-worthy biblical puns? Certainly not this reader.

Sadly one gains the feeling that Crystal was bullied into writing this book by his editors at Oxford University Press, revealed by his somewhat pedestrian research technique. This seems to have been based largely on browsing the KJB for familiar English idioms and biblical phrases still in common currency and then simply entering these into Google. This is surely unworthy of a writer so academically rigorous and successful at revealing the fascinating history and nuances of the English language in his other works.
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on 27 May 2013
A most disappointing and unconvincing book.

Why should the fact that a particular phrase or saying predates the KJV mean that the Bible was not its origin: might it not have been so via formal or informal translation from the Latin or wherever? Why should the fact that a particular phrase or saying postdates the KJV mean that the Bible was not its origin: might it not be the corruption of a Biblical phrase?

Worst of all, Crystal frequently resorts to giving arbitrary lists of phrases or derivations of phrases culled from searches he has done on Google. This is a lazy approach and furnishes very weak an argument: the quirky company name based on a corruption of a Biblical phrase may be here today and gone tomorrow and thus not suggestive of anything in particular. The approach suggests that Crystal was more interested in finishing his book to a publishing deadline, the 400th anniversary of the first appearance of the appearance of the KJV, than in writing a scholarly account of the continuing influence of the KJV on the English Language.
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on 22 September 2010
This wonderful little book delights and is to be highly recommended.

Mr Crystal manages to write wittily and appropriately about this his latest project, examining the impact of the King James Bible on the English Language. It is an enjoyable read, and the structure of it invites readers to dip in and out, whether it is on the tube, bed-side or indeed the loo.
The author balances research and academia with enjoyable trivia, leaving the reader delighted, and little illuminated after every chapter.
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on 18 February 2011
I have read and enjoyed all of David Crystal's books on language. I was not disappointed with his 'Begat' which describes the great influence the King James Bible has had on English. Numerous expresions which we use today come from the 1611 original, eg 'thorn in my side' 'how are the mighty fallen' and 'through a glass darkly'. Most of them come from the New Testament, with Matthew being the most prolific source;'begat' appears in the first 16 verses of Matthew, where the listing runs from Abraham through to Jesus. It also appears in the Old Testament, notably in Genesis. When reading 'Begat' I kept wondering why it was ever thought necessary to attempt to replace the King James version with the New English Bible; if it ain't broke, don't fix it!!
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VINE VOICEon 19 March 2011
A very detailed look at the influence (and, importantly, acknowledgement, where appropriate, of the lack of influence) of the King James Bible upon modern English usage.

I was not altogether sure of the target audience David Crystal had in mind; the book obviously has a historical resonance with the 400th anniversary of the publication of the KJB, but he manages to combine scholarship and prodigious research with a readable style which makes the book very accessible to the interested layman.

As one of the other reviewers has said, this is a book which you can dip into and out of; indeed, my only genuine caveat is that its format, whereby a particular Biblical phrase is considered at length in each chapter, can make it seem a little samey if it is read in a single sitting.
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on 28 February 2016
I'm a long time fan of Prof Crystal's writings, and I love his sensitivity to the English tone of voice. In the present book, Crystal takes phrases from the KJV (King James Version) and investigates to what extent the English language has incorporated and adapted them into the way we speak and write. He is also careful to note where phrases might have been common currency from before the KJV. The writing is always amusing, polilshed, and informative. However, I would have thought that a scholar of Prof Crystal's background would have focussed more on the metalinguistic aspects of the KJV legacy. Rhythmic and alliterative schemes, and the way the KJV speaks (as it was clearly "appointed to be read in churches"!) No use cavailing over a book that has not been written (although the title could be misleading in this respect.) The present volume will be an indispensable treasury for compilers of pub quizzes and those in search of spiritual after-dinner conversation topics - as well as being a good read from the pen of an eminent scholar and wonderful communicator.
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on 3 August 2011
Begat is another great offering from David Crystal, although it's a lot lighter in tone than his other books - pop-linguistics, if you like. The short chapters make it easy to dip in and out of, and anyone with an interest in language, the Bible or indeed journalism will enjoy it. My only criticism would be that there are a lot of examples compared with not so much explanation of the why of things - still interesting reading, though.
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on 25 January 2012
As a non believer I have always been interested in the subject of Biblical quotes.
This book confirmed my devotion to the work of David Crystal but why did he have to have the quotations in such a small typeface.A very interesting read
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