The Bible has been called the most quoted, most translated, most published, most sold, and most shoplifted book of all time. It is difficult to overestimate the impact of its ideas on Western culture. And, particularly in the translation completed under the direction of King James I of England in 1611, it has had a leading role in shaping the English language and English literature. Alister McGrath, in his book In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, writes,
No other book has so permeated and penetrated the hearts and speech of the English race as has the Bible. . . . The King James Bible, along with the words of William Shakespeare, is regularly singled out as one of the most foundational influences on the development of the modern English language.
I wrote Putting Words in Our Mouths: A Look at Biblical Expressions in American English with English learners in mind, to teach them the meanings of commonly used phrases and to familiarize them with the stories and concepts of the Bible. Familiarity with the Bible leads to a better understanding of the art, history, music, politics, and customs of English-speaking peoples. The authors of The Bible Literacy Report II state, “Almost without exception, English professors we surveyed at major American colleges and universities see knowledge of the Bible as a deeply important part of a good education.” The report quotes a professor from Northwestern University who calls the Bible the “most influential text in all of Western culture.”
But this doesn’t mean that all English speakers are aware of or understand the Bible’s influence. In fact, serious English-language students who gain a basic knowledge of the Bible may find themselves ahead of many native speakers.
Today, biblical words and phrases—including idioms—appear in informal conversation, news articles, blogs, television shows, movies, popular songs, and literature. Even the word bible itself has a place in modern English as any “authoritative book on a particular subject.” Bible comes from a Greek word meaning “books.” This is because the Bible is a collection of 66 books, written by at least 40 men over about 1500 years. And on the pages of these books are written many well-known stories, some of which take place on a grand scale or involve huge groups of people—such as Noah and the flood, the 10 plagues of Egypt, and the journey of the Israelites to the Promised Land. Therefore, something that is “enourmous or extremely extensive” can be said to be of biblical proportions or on a biblical scale.
I invite you to join me on a journey through the Bible, using common English expressions as our stepping stones. We’ll start at the best place possible . . . in the beginning.
The format of Putting Words in Our Mouths is simple. Each word or phrase is introduced with its definition and a sample sentence showing how it can be used in conversation. Then an explanation of the word/phrase’s origin follows, along with the biblical passage from which it comes. Where it differs from the more modern translation, I’ve included in brackets the expression in its King James version.
I will be adding expressions as time permits, moving from Genesis to Revelation. You can view all the posts in order by clicking on Browse All Entries in the right-hand column. You can also look for specific topics by using the search field.
(Wachlin, Mary, and Byron R. Johnson, The Bible Literacy Report II: What University Professors Say Incoming Students Need to Know, Bible Literacy Project, 2006)
[photo: “Used Bible,” by Doug 1021, used under a Creative Commons license]