Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Assessing the influence of the King James Bible

The King James translation of the Bible will see it's 400th anniversary this year. An article I read on the Oxford English Dictionary's website discusses the influence of the translation. I think an important clarification to make is that assessing the influence of the King James Bible is very different from assessing the influence of the Bible as a whole. The article mentions this, but I think it could be missed, especially by anyone who just skims the piece.

"Compare this with other translations through which we can trace earlier, and greater, contributions to the development of English: for example, the 1400 OEDentries that cite the Wycliffite Bible as first evidence (a1382); the 200 entries from both the Coverdale Bible (1535) and later Wycliffite version (c.1425) respectively; and the 128 entries derived from Tyndale's version. If we expand the terms of reference to include first recorded senses (i.e. new meanings of existing words), the contribution of the KJB, as recorded in the OED Online, increases to over 300, including bushy (of hair), to cut short (a speaker), muddy (of thought), and lost sheep to describe someone who strays from an expected course. But once again, this falls short of first recorded senses citing earlier translations—nearly 4000 for the fourteenth-century Wycliffite, close to 1000 for the Coverdale, and more than 400 for Tyndale’s Bible. (Figures for the KJB would, of course, be still lower if ongoing revision were to discover earlier citations.)
These small totals mean that we should not exaggerate the influence of the KJB on English. It's true to say, as several commentators do, that no other literary source has matched the 1611 edition for the number of influential idioms that it contains; but it isn't true to say that the King James originated all of them. Rather, what it did was popularize them. It gave the idioms a widespread public presence through the work being 'appointed to be read in Churches'. The work was never 'authorized' (despite its popular name) in any legal sense, but no other translation reached so many people over so long a period as the King James version."

Read the whole thing here http://www.oed.com/public/flyintheointment.