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The only thing I can remember about a Tesco advertisement on the television the other night is the line: ‘No rest for the wicked.’ It was meant ironically, of course.

25 September 2010

12:00 AM

25 September 2010

12:00 AM

Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language David Crystal

Oxford, pp.336, 14.99

The only thing I can remember about a Tesco advertisement on the television the other night is the line: ‘No rest for the wicked.’ It was meant ironically, of course.

The only thing I can remember about a Tesco advertisement on the television the other night is the line: ‘No rest for the wicked.’ It was meant ironically, of course. The suggestion was not that wicked people alone shop at Tesco’s. Nor was the phrase intended as a pious invocation of the Bible, its source, Isaiah, 57:21.

An anthropologist describing the clichés, or tropes, of Western cultures might form the idea that biblical religion played a lively part in daily discourse. Just as we hear an Arab say, ‘God put me in the High Street this morning,’ and suppose that the man sees life as one theurgic system, so our speech seems a mosaic of sacred texts. We think someone, Tony Blair perhaps, ‘a man after our own heart’, ‘the salt of the earth’, who goes ‘from strength to strength’, but then we find his administration ‘a two-edged sword’, and when it begins to rule with ‘a rod of iron’, we ‘kick against the pricks’, and make the former prime minister a ‘scapegoat’, who if he had to ‘reap the whirlwind’ would escape by ‘the skin of his teeth’.


These are not quotations from the Bible, David Crystal makes clear, for quotations are characterised by being used only in settings where their religious application is relevant, and they maintain their original sense while sticking closely to the language of the translator. An example of a quotation from the Bible is ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a son.’ A biblical idiom that has entered the language, by contrast, will also be used by non-believers, very likely with a change of meaning, and it will frequently be adapted, often for humorous effect.

That is where ‘No rest for the wicked’ comes in, for Isaiah says, in the language of the Authorised Version: ‘There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.’ The sentence has been adapted so that (in my idiolect, and perhaps in yours) it takes the form ‘No peace for the wicked.’ Yet for Tesco’s ad-men and the great majority of English-speakers, rest has supplanted peace. No one knows why.

In Begat, the indefatigable linguistician David Crystal first asks himself whether it is true, as many say, that ‘No book has had greater influence on the English language’ than the 399-year-old Authorised Version of the Bible, or the ‘King James Bible’ as he chooses to call it, in conformity with American usage, though he was born in Ulster and lives in North Wales. In answer, although he discusses the spelling of ‘Shibboleth’ (in earlier English versions given as ‘Sebolech’ or even ‘Thebolech’), he generally discounts influences in grammar, vocabulary, spelling and punctuation as either too tenuous or too hard to trace, and chooses to focus on idioms. But how many idioms, exactly, is the AV Bible responsible for?

It does not spoil his story to reveal that Professor Crystal’s conclusion is 257. That answer depends, of course, on how you count them, but by applying the same criteria to Shakespeare (so stuffed with quotations), he reaches a total for him of only about 100. Yet it would be quite wrong, in his view, to claim for the Bible ‘thousands’ of influential expressions, as some careless talkers have done.

Of those 257 idioms, only 18 cases take the exact form found in the AV. In 37 cases some unknown process has rewritten the AV antecedent: a fine example is ‘fly in the ointment’. In seven cases, the form of the modern idiom may be supplied by a different translation, such as the Catholic Douai-Rheims version of 1582 (New Testament) and 1610 (Old); an example is ‘the way of all flesh’. Of the 196 cases left, the form of words in the AV is paralleled by an earlier translation (160 in the Geneva version of 1560; 40 in the 14th-century Wycliffite translations). Crystal gives 38 pages of tables setting out the occurrence of his 257 idioms in six different versions. This is more fun than it sounds.

There is plenty of room for quibbling. ‘Vile bodies’ is certainly popular because of Waugh’s novel, but he must surely have been inspired proximately by the Prayer Book burial service rather than Philippians 3:21, which it quotes. And my candidate for the 258th idiom would be that Kiplingesque dog returning to his vomit (Proverbs 26:11).


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