Without the English translations of the Bible hundreds of years ago, adolescents wouldn't go through puberty, we wouldn't be able to satisfy our appetites, and Keanu Reeves wouldn't have starred in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.
According to Coined By God: Words and Phrases That First Appear in English Translations of the Bible (published this month by W.W. Norton), puberty, appetite and excellent are among more than 100 English words, phrases, rhythms, and idioms coined in Bible translations.
Authors Stanley Malless and Jeffrey McQuain researched the Wycliffe (1382), Tyndale (1526), Coverdale (1535), Geneva (1560), and King James (1611) translations for words or phrases that had no previous record in the English language. The terms they found—or didn't find—might surprise you. The book includes 131 brief entries that trace the items' origins and how they are now used.
Christianity Today assistant online editor Todd Hertz talked with Malless, an education professor at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, about how he and McQuain researched the book and what the Bible means for the English language.
What was the impetus for you to do this book?
This isn't really a faith-based book. The purpose was largely educational in the larger sense that it would trigger new ideas and generate interest about words and phrases.
We were coming off of our book Coined by Shakespeare. That book includes about 240 words that first appeared in Shakespeare's plays.
Our purpose in doing the Bible book was to create non-threatening vignettes to provide numerous portals into the current thinking about language study. What we were really looking for was to offer readers possible connections to the universe of multi-disciplinary stuff that's out there. Through etymologies, allusions, suggestion, and nuance, it was essentially our hope that the book would have educational, as well as entertainment, value.
Many people regard Shakespeare and the Bible to be the primary generators of English words as well as phrases, idioms, and rhythms. These two sources are the most obvious choices if looking at mechanisms for how words enter the English language. They are recognized as being the primary movers and motivators and generators of language, or English language anyway.
What was the research process for this?
We probably couldn't have done this five years ago. A lot of it was made possible because of the Internet and CD ROM technologies.
We generated the original list of words from Merriam Webster's 10th Collegiate CD, which has a function where you can check words by dates. I identified the five primary translations during the main period of translation into English—beginning with Wycliffe and ending with King James.
I used the dates for those bibles to search the Merriam Webster CD. Those particular years turned up, in some cases, hundreds of words. Some of them were off the wall, spent, and unrecognizable as English words. Some of them were very current.
From there, it was a matter of going to the original texts and getting the citations.
How was this group of words and phrases chosen for the final list?
We took our raw list and tried to find the most common, current words in the language. We wanted those that would be very recognizable or surprise people. "Oh, I didn't know liberty was coined in the Bible. Or cucumber."
This was our criteria: to choose day-to-day kinds of language. Plus, there were a number of coinages we left out because it's questionable whether the words were actually first introduced in the Bible. There weren't that many coinages that we found but left behind. There are 131 entries of both words and phrases in the book, and I doubt we found more than 200 total.
Were there any phrases or words that were particularly surprising that they were coined in the Bible?
Sure, words like sprinkler or stargazer. We came away from this realizing that there's really nothing new under the sun—which actually is another phrase from the Bible.
It's really a lot of fun to have these realizations that the language is a living thing. There's this wonderful vibrancy to it that keeps it going. Somebody once said that the Bible interprets itself. I think that's probably right in a number of ways.
What were some surprising things you found in the research?
We were surprised at how many phrases considered "biblical" are really elusive phrases—they're not in the Bible but they're of the Bible. Promised land, Good Samaritan, prodigal son, and Doubting Thomas don't exist in the Bible.
We also found that Wycliffe had about half of the total number of coinages [we included in the book]. Tyndale was second with about half of that. King James by contrast had two entries. We thought it was going to be the other way around—that the King James would be top heavy and the others wouldn't have as many.
I was a little bit surprised about the way the numbers fell as far as the books of the Bible. There's kind of an interesting symmetry. In the Old Testament, Genesis and Exodus both had 10 or 11 coinages. Matthew then had the highest number of entries from the New Testament at 14. The first books of each have the most coinages. I didn't know what to make of it, except that [the translators] were more energetic at the beginning than at the end.
As far as the numbers go in terms of the New Testament and Old Testament, it is about even. There were about 70 coinages from the New Testament and 64 in the Old Testament, including the Apocrypha. So there's an even distribution.
What effect have English Bible translations had on the language?
In an educative sense, they've provided tools and methodologies to think about translation, which have become very valuable for us in today's world. There are many things to learn about translation from the Bible translators.
This time period was a century of translation, not only of the Bible, but of many Greek and Roman classics. Translation methodology was established during that time.
And also, of course, [these translations affected] the nuances of ideology and religion. When you have something like the Geneva Bible that included interpretations in the margins, you see that translators were taking it upon themselves to explain hard-to-understand passages. This, in effect, was establishing doctrine in and of itself.
The King James Bible offered so much to the writing of prose and poetry. I think of Walt Whitman right away, for instance. It is a product of a series of translations. It wasn't just something that happened in and of itself—but it was the heir to that process that started with Wycliffe. So through a couple hundred years, you get something as beautiful as the King James Bible. Somebody was learning something about translation.
Todd Hertz is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.
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Recently, Christian History Corner looked at Coined by God in the article, "Sex, Politics, and the Bible | Some words just don't mean what they used to … "