Let there be light
2011 sees the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Bible (or Authorized Version). The KJV is a strong contender for the accolade of 'the book that has had more influence on the development of English than any other'.
Many phrases that are now common currency in the language appeared first in the King James Bible. Likewise, a varied collection of everyday words also first saw the printer's ink in the work; for example, 'accurately', 'battering-ram', 'expansion', 'gopher', 'ingenuously', 'needleworker', 'phrasing', and so on...
The text of the KJV has been used in numerous important works; from the libretto of the best known of all choral oratorios, Handel's Messiah, 1741, which is taken almost verbatim from the Authorized Version, to Martin Luther King's I have a dream speech, which he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1963 and in which he quoted directly from the KJV, Isaiah 40:4:
"[I have a dream that one day] every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."
However, the influential power of the book isn't based on the number of phrases and words that were coined for it; earlier versions of the Bible and luminaries like Shakespeare can claim many more. Its impact came because it brought clearly expressed, accessible and poetically beautiful English to the populace for the first time. The KJV was written to be spoken and, as James I's authorization states, it was 'appointed to be read in Churches'. Church services in England at that date consisted largely of readings from the Bible. By providing short verses in the plain colloquial English that the illiterate congregation could understand and remember, the verses became cemented into the spoken language. No verse exemplifies this power and simplicity better than one from the very beginning of the book "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light". This is one of the best-known phrases in English. It is a translation of the Latin 'dixitque Deus fiat lux et facta est lux' (which hardly trips off the tongue) and appears in the opening lines of the Bible, in Genesis I. The English translation was first printed in Miles Coverdale's Bible, 1535, but the version of it that was known by every English speaker from the 17th century onward was that of the King James Version, 1611:
In the beginning God created the Heauen, and the Earth.
And the earth was without forme, and voyd, and darkenesse was vpon the face of the deepe: and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
The tendency of US politicians towards over-wordiness was compared unfavourably to the beauty and clarity of the original text by the journalist and broadcaster Alistair Cooke. In his acceptance speech for the 'Best Speaker of English' award in 1998, he gave an imagined US Government representative's version of Genesis 1:3:
"The Supreme Being mandated the illumination of the Universe and this directive was enforced forthwith."