Contributions of the King James Bible to the English Language

Many factors shape the language we speak. All languages grow and change over time. Sometimes the change is brought about by exposure to a new language and culture. In other cases, change is the result of new cultural experiences or technologies. For words or phrases to gain a foothold and become a consistent part of our lexicon, they must be used often.

The King James Bible (also known as the King James Version, KJV, or Authorized Version) is the most often printed book in the world. Since it was first published in 1611, experts estimate that billions of copies have been sold. It is the best selling book of all time and still sells by the millions each year. That level of exposure and the rich use of language which rolls off the tongue have made the King James Version of the Bible the biggest single contributor of phrases to the English language. Over 350 phrases used in everyday speech come from the King James Bible.

King James of England and Scotland commissioned this translation for the Church of England in 1604 and set up a committee of 54 distinguished scholars to do the translation. In the end, 47 scholars actually participated. The ground rules were: no contentious notes in the margins (an earlier English-language bible called the Geneva Bible had distinct anti-royal notations), language must be accessible to the common people, and a true and accurate text based on the best scholarship available. Final editing of the text was done in an unusual way. Instead of reading the text and annotating changes, suggested versions were read aloud in Stationer’s Hall in London. The goal was to create a text that sounded right.

There were a few problems with early printings of the King James Version. In 1631 a version called the Wicked Bible was printed where the word “not” was left out of the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The printer was fined and all the books were pulled from the market. He died in debtor’s prison for that omission.

Up to the 16th century, Bibles included a section called the Apocrypha between the Old and New Testaments. By 1769, when a version with standardized capitalization, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and italicization was released, both commercial and charitable printers publishing the King James Bible were regularly omitting the Apocrypha in order to cut printing costs. Other information included in the original translation including tables for the reading of Psalms at matins and evensong, for holy days and observances, a calendar and an almanac are also omitted from current editions.

The King James Bible introduced 18 classic phrases. According to National Geographic, Google searched 2.4 million of its English-language books to determine how often these 18 phrases were used. The first in the list that follows is the most frequently used. A citation is provided, however, some of these phrases are used multiple times in the Bible. I have provided explanations or examples are given of how these phrases might be used in a sentence.

The root of the matter (Job 19:28) Example: I asked questions until I reached the root of the matter. It was the dog that had stolen the turkey from the table.
Get thee behind me (Luke 4:8) Example: Get thee behind me, evil one, leave me alone.
Suffer little children (Luke 18:16) Example: Suffer little children to come to you and learn from you.
A thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7) Example: I tell you John is a thorn in the flesh. He is always picking on his younger brothers and sisters.
A still small voice (1 Kings 19:12) Example: I stood in wonder in the great forest, surrounded by venerable old trees and heard the still small voice of reverence.
Now are the mighty fallen (2 Samuel 1:19) Example: The people of Egypt and Tunisia celebrated their newly won freedom now the mighty have fallen. (Sometimes the phrases are slightly adjusted to fit the sentence although the meaning remains the same.)
Turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6) Example: Elvis Presley turned the world upside down with his dance moves and music.
East of Eden (Genesis 4:16) means outside of paradise. This phrase is used as a title for a John Steinbeck novel and a movie based on the book.
Unto the pure all things are pure (Titus 1:15) Example: My uncle thought the man was doing him a favor by taking his money. Because he is such a good man himself, he can not conceive of someone doing a bad thing. Unto the pure all things are pure.
Know for a certainty (Joshua 23:13) Example: I know for a certainty that Susie drove to the meeting tonight.
Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20) Example: Instead of trying to amass wealth during life on earth, you should lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.
No small stir (Acts 12:18) (means a great stir or excitement) Example: She created no small stir when she arrived at the party wearing the very latest Paris fashion.
Beat their swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4) Example: Peace activists around the world advocate for governments to beat their swords into plowshares.
Much study is a weariness of the flesh (Ecclesiastes 12:12) Example: Many college students would agree that much study is a weariness of the flesh.
To everything there is a season (Ecclesiastes 3:1) means that every activity has its time to happen – birth, death, laughing, crying, etc.
Set thine house in order (Isaiah 38:1) means to be prepared.
Be horribly afraid (Jeremiah 2:12) means to fear greatly.
Let us now praise famous men (Ecclesiasticus 44:1 Apocrypha) This phrase is used to title a book by James Agee and Walker Evans (1941) chronicling the lives of sharecroppers in the Deep South. In Ecclesiasticus, it begins a chapter outlining the names and accomplishments of great men of the LORD like Abraham and Isaac.

Some phrases are rooted in the Bible but are not actual quotations. For instance, the phrase “Promised land” is never actually used in the Bible itself but refers to the land God promises to the Hebrews. All phrases are shortened Biblical quotes, with most being a set of contiguous words. There are, however, some phrases which combine portions of a longer quote to form a phrase which is not quite a literal quote. An example of this is “Can a leopard change his spots?” from Jeremiah 13:23 which deletes a portion of the full quote “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.”

Politicians and protest movements frequently invoke the words of the Bible to rally support for their cause. Sometimes the quotes come straight from the Bible; other times allusions to Biblical passages are used. Examples of these include phrases like “Let my people go” (Exodus 5:1) used as a chant by Civil Rights protestors and “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain…” (Isaiah 40:4) used in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln proclaimed “Woe unto the world because of offences” (Matthew 18:7) in an effort to build support for purging the nation of slavery.

A few King James Version Biblical passages have become so well known that despite theological differences, people from many backgrounds find them familiar. Psalm 23, which is heard regularly at funerals, is one.

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”

Another reference found in the funeral rights is the “dust to dust” phrase from “…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19).

Additionally, when the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) is recited, the version of choice is frequently the King James Version. It differs from the Catholic version most notably in the choice of the wording in line 12 “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” (KJV) vs. “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive our trespassers.” (Roman Catholic version).

Another rich source of quotes is the Book of Proverbs. Not surprisingly, these pithy jewels of wisdom are relied on by parents and pastors to guide their charges behavior. An example of this is “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6)

Other often heard phrases (in the order in which they appear) which were in common usage over 400 years ago and spread by the King James Bible include:

Am I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis 4:9) questions whether an individual is responsible for protecting his fellow man.
the fat of the land (Genesis 45:18) means to live easily by having essential things provided with little or no effort.
put words in his mouth (Exodus 4:15) means to say what someone else should say even though it is not necessarily what they want to say.
peace offering (Leviticus 3:6) means a gift to appeal for peace.
fell flat on his face (Numbers 22:31) Example: Although Nick tried hard, he fell flat on his face. He did not even reach the third round of the spelling bee.
the apple of his eye (Deuteronomy 32:10) means a person who is very precious to another, normally used to describe the feeling of a parent or grandparent about a child.
a man after his own heart (1 Samuel 13:14) Example: Sam liked to do many of the same things old George liked to do. He was a man after his own heart.
the skin of my teeth (Job 19:20) means just barely made it through a difficult time or event.
stand in awe (Psalms 4:4) Example: I stand in awe of his extraordinary strength.
heart’s desire (Psalms 21:2) means what someone wants most.
my cup runneth over (Psalms 23:5) means one is bountifully blessed.
tender mercies (Psalms 25:6) means to submit to another person’s power or discretion; often used ironically. The Bible offers precursors to the ironical usage as in (Proverbs 12:10): “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast; but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.”
broken heart (Psalms 34:18) means despair, devastation, and unremitting sorrow.
pour out your heart (Psalms 62:8) means to unburden yourself of your feelings and emotions.
at their wit’s end (Psalm 107:27) means at the end of one’s mental capabilities or ideas.
two-edged sword (Proverbs 5:4) means something that can have either very good or very bad consequences.
there is no new thing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9) Here the author is bored and complaining about the monotony of life. This phrase is used in two ways. In the way the author meant it or to mean events and human characteristics repeat endlessly. Often used as “there is nothing new under the sun” which comes from the New International Version (the update to the King James Bible).
eat, drink and be merry (Ecclesiastes 8:15) means to enjoy life.
drop of a bucket (Isaiah 40:15) means something small which does not mean much; often the phrase is altered slightly when used “a drop in a bucket”; similar the meaning of “a grain of sand” Example: The dollar she paid for the rice was a drop in the bucket to her budget.
see eye to eye (Isaiah 52:8) means to agree with someone.
as a lamb to slaughter (Isaiah 53:7) means easily led to disaster. Example: The man went into the casino as a lamb to slaughter.
holier than thou (Isaiah 65:5) means a person who is obnoxiously pious or self righteous.
sour grape (Jeremiah 31:30) means to be disgruntled; often used as “sour grapes”. This phrase originated as an allusion to Aesop’s fable about the fox that dismissed the grapes he couldn’t reach as sour and was popularized by the King James Version.
from time to time (Ezekiel 4:10) means occasionally; repeatedly over an interval of time. Example: From time to time I check in with my mother to see how she is doing.
feet of clay (Daniel 2: 31-33) means to be human, usually in the sense of failing to meet moral standards. Example: The politician’s claim to have created new jobs when in fact he had not, only proved he had feet of clay.
reap the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7) means to suffer the penalties of one’s misdeeds.
to the ends of the earth (Zechariah 9:10) means to the outer most limits. Example: I will search to the ends of the earth for the perfect chocolate.
seek and ye shall find (Matthew 7:7) means to be diligent, earnest, and to persevere.
strait is the gate, and narrow is the way (Matthew 7:14) A comment on how difficult it is for man to follow the way of Christ.
the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13) means an individual or group which represents the best or noblest elements of society.
an eye for an eye (Matthew 5:38) means repayment in kind as revenge for an injustice. This concept of justice comes from the Old Testament (Exodus 21) and from Hammurabi’s Code dated to 1772 B.C. which is credited as being the oldest complete set of written laws.
the signs of the times (Matthew 16:3) means to understand the meaning of events or indicators of what might happen; often used as “sign of the times”.
all these things must come to pass (Matthew 24:6) means to be patient and wait out events.
the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41) means while someone may wish to behave one way, they actually do the opposite. Example: Although Sarah was on a diet, she ate the chocolate. Her spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.
a cross to bear (Luke 14:27) means a burden one must live with; a trial. Today this phrase is used either lightly or seriously. Examples: (Serious) Suffering cancer is Jill’s cross to bear. (Light) Washing the dishes once a week was Patty’s cross to bear.
a law unto themselves (Romans 2:14) means doing things their own way without regard to the rules.
labour of love (1 Thessalonians 1:3) means something one does because they enjoy the process and not because they are paid or rewarded in any way.
fight the good fight (1 Timothy 6:12) means the noble fight in the cause of religion; but is often widen to mean to fight for a good cause; can also mean a valiant effort. Examples: “Fight the good fight and save the snowy owls.” Or “John didn’t win the election but he fought the good fight.”

As you can see, the King James Bible is an abundant source of proverbs, clauses, and expressions for speakers of the English language. Produced by scholars and poets over 400 years ago, it still provides rich, descriptive phrases for everyday speech in addition to its role as a religious text.