The King James Version of the Bible was first published on this day, 2 May, in 1611. This is arguably still the definitive English translation of the Bible, containing a lyricism and beauty of phrasing which many find largely absent from the more recent translations of the Bible into English.
Although the King James Bible is often cited as one of the rare examples of something good that was designed by committee, a considerable amount of the final translation was modelled on earlier work undertaken nearly a century before, by William Tyndale, who was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1536. So although these phrases were often found in earlier English translations of the Bible prior to the King James of 1611, it was thanks to that version that they became common currency (this was, as is often pointed out, also the time of Shakespeare, that other great benefactor of English phrases).
Here are five of our favourite phrases derived from the Bible, with a bit of interesting extra information about some of them. We’ve tried to choose phrases which don’t immediately strike the reader or listener as Biblical. Often there is more to the phrases than meets the eye.
Bite the dust. Without the Bible, Queen would never have been able to pen a song called ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. This idiom, meaning ‘to fall to the ground, wounded or dead’, appears in Psalms 72 as ‘lick the dust’, clearly the forerunner to the dust-biting which we’ve been talking about ever since. Tobias Smollett, perhaps best known as the author of Humphry Clinker, used the phrase ‘bite the dust’ in Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane (1750), showing that somewhere along the way the licking had turned to biting.
Go the extra mile. This is from a specific Bible verse, from Matthew 5:41: ‘And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.’ Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, took this verse as the epigraph, and inspiration, for his Morse novel The Riddle of the Third Mile.
To put words in someone’s mouth. From II Samuel 14:3: ‘And come to the king, and speak on this manner unto him. So Joab put the words in her mouth.’
Labour of love. From Thessalonians 1:2 and 1:3: ‘We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers; Remembering without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, in the sight of God and our Father.’ We’ve been talking about all manner of labours of love ever since.
A wolf in sheep’s clothing. This phrase appears in Matthew 7:15, which warns, ‘Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.’ (Indeed, ‘beware of false prophets’ has also taken on the status of proverb, referring more generally to people who may not be quite what they claim to be.) The interesting thing – which makes this one a little more complicated – is that this phrase also appears in Aesop’s Fables, which were written before the verse from Matthew. However, it is unclear whether this specific phrase was in use in English before the KJV.
So, there’s our top five. However, there are many more phrases which either originated in, or were popularised by, the Bible, especially the King James Version: the apple of my eye, sign of the times, land of Nod, lamb to the slaughter, a fly in the ointment, a multitude of sins, a man after his own heart, by the skin of your teeth, charity begins at home, eat, drink and be merry, fall from grace, fat of the land, see eye to eye, heart’s desire, holier than thou, and scapegoat. And that’s just a small sampling! But that’s for another post…
Image: Title-page and dedication from a 1612-1613 King James Bible, printed by Robert Barker, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.