Nostalgia: King James Bible and everyday phrases

King Jame Bible on display in York Minster during an exhibition in 2011.
King Jame Bible on display in York Minster during an exhibition in 2011.

If William Shakespeare gave us more words, phrases and idioms than any other author in the English language, second only to his works is the King James version of the Bible, published five years before his death. Many of the phrases and stories still used in everyday speech have their origins in the 1611 Bible, even though most of us are unaware of it. They have survived because they are so memorable, appropriate and expressive. Just a few examples, taken at random, should make the point: “No peace for the wicked”; “a fly in the ointment”; “the salt of the earth”; “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”; “count the cost”; “cover the multitude of sins”; and “a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand”.

However, since English is a living, evolving language, there are also many words, still in use, which no longer mean what they did in Shakespeare’s time. For instance, when Paul told the Christians in Corinth “whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no questions for conscience sake”, he was referring to meat bought from butchers’ shops, not a chaotic confusion, which we now mean by “shambles”.

“Gay” is an interesting adjective/noun which has altered its meaning more than once within a relatively short time. It appears only once in the Bible, where it means colourful, rich or of fine quality, as in “the gay clothing”. In the Victorian age, “gay” was one of several words to describe a female prostitute or woman of loose morals. Later again, “gay” meant happy-go-lucky, carefree or light-hearted, whereas nowadays it refers almost always to a homosexual.

Some words in the Bible are still current, but their original meaning has been largely lost. Take, for example, this quotation from Psalm 140: “The proud have hid a snare for me and cords; they have spread a net by the wayside; they have set gins for me.” The clues for the meaning of “gins” here are in the words “snare” and “net”. A gin to Shakespeare was an animal trap, not an alcoholic spirit flavoured with juniper berries. Of particular significance to Zionists, who believe that the Jews were chosen by God to live in a special place, is the use of the word “peculiar” in Deuteronomy:”...the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth”. Clearly, “peculiar” here does not mean odd or strange, but particular and exclusive. Real ale drinkers will be familiar with a Theakston brew called “Old Peculier”, a reference to the special status of its source in Masham, a parish exempt from the jurisdiction of its diocese.

On the same subject, “publican” is not a publican. “Zacchaeus, chief of the publicans”, was a rich, collector of taxes for his Roman employers and therefore doubly detested by his Jewish victims. He was not mine, cheerful host at the local, tippling house.

So many Old Testament characters have survived in our speech, even if we are no longer familiar with their stories. The unfortunate Job survives as “Job’s comforter” and “the patience of Job”. In Genesis, Cain killed his brother and was forever stigmatised with “the curse of Cain”, “the mark of Cain” and “to raise Cain”.

Also in Genesis, Jacob dreamed of angels climbing a ladder to heaven, so that “Jacob’s ladder” is a plant with interlacing leaves; a flexible rope ladder that can be thrown over a ship’s side; or any long flight of steps, such as those linking the top of Lightfoot’s Road with that of Stepney Hill.

“The land of Nod” is not your own bed and not really a location in Hull. According to Genesis, it is “on the east of Eden”. Everybody remembers that Daniel survived “the lion’s den”, a phrase still employed to describe a place of extreme danger. Nowadays, we marvel at the advanced age that some of us live, but at 969 years Methuselah beats anyone in Scarborough’s final care homes.

Similarly, we might today complain if we lived in York or Tadcaster that global climate change is causing unprecedented floods, but none can compare with Noah’s deluge.

There are still many popular phrases in common use that owe their sources to the King James Bible. Some refer to human physical features. “The apple of your eye”, meaning something or someone supremely precious or favoured, occurs more than once. “The skin of my teeth” is of similar derivation. Teeth have no more skin than eyes have apples, but in this context it means a close shave or a near miss. When scales fall from our eyes, like St Paul you will have recovered your sight and received a Damascene conversion to the truth.

As to be expected from a people engaged mainly in farming, there are many familiar phrases derived from their work. Sheep are separated from goats, wheat from chaff, crops are sown and reaped, lands flow with milk and honey, pearls are cast before swine, olive branches are offered, wine figures prominently, swords are beaten into ploughshares. And if you want a metaphor for the impossible, try to pass a camel through the eye of a needle.

Anyone on the lookout for alternatives to Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto”, will find plenty of references to class conflict and unjust inequalities in the Authorised Version. Instead of “proletariat”, before the industrial revolution, there were “hewers of wood and drawers of water”; and instead of long hours of labour and low wages, there were people waiting for “crumbs from the rich man’s table”. And there’s that old warning again about “filthy lucre”, “serving God and Mammon”, and “the love of money is the root of all evil”. Finally, “the labourer is worthy of his hire” might well be justification for a living wage. The Bible is right up to date.