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Coined by God

The title is modelled on that of Coined by Shakespeare, an earlier work by the same authors, Stanley Malless and Jeffrey McQuain. But while the Bard may really have coined the words attributed to him, the English translations of the Bible are without doubt the work of Man.

The cover of 'Coined by God'

The authors try to pre-empt possible criticism of the title in their introduction: “It is this seemingly unstoppable tradition of Biblical translation and interpretation that we are calling ‘God’ in our title”. Whatever your faith, in knowing English you will have been deeply influenced by the language of translations of the Bible by men such as Wycliffe, Tyndall, and Coverdale.

The editors of the King James Bible started with a revised version of Coverdale’s Great Bible of 1539, which itself was partly based on a translation by Tyndall. All the early translators wrote in the vernacular, in spite of great opposition from Church authorities, as they wanted the words of Scripture to be understood by ordinary people. They were writing at a time when English was going through great changes from what scholars call its “Middle” period to its “Modern” one, when printing and increased literacy were standardising it. Because the Bible was so widely read and heard, the style and vocabulary of the translators influenced generations of writers and influenced the way the language developed.

Quotations from the King James Bible are common even now, often without people realising they are referring to it. A quick count in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations finds Shakespeare in front by a good margin (71 pages against 39) but in the three centuries following its completion the King James Bible became intimately familiar to many people who never heard Shakespeare.

After all this, Coined by God is a disappointment, mainly because it feels such a slight volume. There are only about 130 entries, a mixture of original words that first appear in one of the major translations with some of the phrases that are often still used as quotations.

Among the words are such everyday forms to us as blab, beautiful, civility, dishonour, excellent, female, horror, liberty, needlework, persuasion, plague, scapegoat, seashore, treasure, uproar and wordy. Among the phrases are all things to all men, am I my brother’s keeper, the blind leading the blind (a slight misquotation), eat, drink and be merry, no man can serve two masters, you cannot live by bread alone, ivory tower, the quick and the dead, the love of money is the root of all evil, stranger in a strange land, and through a glass darkly.

The treatment is strictly alphabetical, with about a page of notes for each word or phrase. There are indexes of terms by editions of the Bible and by the book in which they appear, together with a bibliography and a short introduction.

[Malless, Stanley & McQuain, Jeffrey, Coined by God, hardback, pp221; ISBN 0-393-02045-2, published by Norton, New York, on 24 February 2003; publisher’s recommended price US$23.95.]

Page created 15 Mar. 2003

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