Oxford £8.99 (327pp). £8.54 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Begat, By David Crystal
Friday 30 September 2011
Britain's leading linguistic prospector tackles the motherlode. The result of David Crystal's investigation into the linguistic legacy of the King James Bible is an illuminating but oddly patchy work. In the end, he agrees with the often-stated view that no book has had greater influence on the English language, though deciding on the exact number of expressions deriving from this translation was "a much harder question than I thought".
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We encounter a host of unexpected Biblical phrases and unpredictable usages. The expression "a fly in the ointment" has its origin in Ecclesiastes 10:1: "Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a sinking savour: so doth a little folly in him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour." Crystal points out that it provided the title for an Ian Dury song with lyrics remarkably close to the original: "Fly in the ointment, Stain in the character." Another pop appropriation, "there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion", from Psalms 137:1 was lifted intact by Boney M.
Both the phrase "Land of Nod" and the title of a Steinbeck novel derive from Genesis 4:16 ("And Cain... dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden"). Crystal offers a remarkable range of Biblical quoters from the Andrews Sisters to John Lennon and Yoko Ono (LP title "Milk and Honey"). Possibly due to heavy reliance on Google, he includes usages by obscure pop groups (The Thermals, Coalesce).
Yet some of Crystal's omissions are baffling. We learn that "my brother's keeper" (Genesis 4:9) was a pilot episode of Miami Vice but not that it was used for the autobiography of Stanislaus Joyce (brother of James). Crystal's exploration of "kick against the pricks" (Acts 9:5) cites a Guardian football report but not the Samuel Beckett collection More Pricks than Kicks. His probing of the phrase "I wish I'd never been born" (Mark 14:21) mentions its "unforgettable use" in Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" but not the despairing cry of James Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life.
The oddest exclusion is PG Wodehouse, whose work is described by Richard Dawkins as "being rich in Biblical phrases". Crystal's feeling that he was "beginning to despair" about finding references to "pillar of salt" (Genesis 19:26) would have been alleviated if he'd read Wodehouse's Joy in the Morning, where Bertie Wooster gives an account of Lot's wife: "She looked round and – bing! – a pillar of salt."
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