But just how many English idioms come from the KJB? When I was writing Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language, I asked people how many they thought there were, and received answers ranging from a hundred to a thousand. It was time to do a proper count. So I read the whole work, looking out for any phrase that I felt had come to be a part of modern English.
I made two discoveries. First, there are not as many as some people think: I found 257. And second, most of the idioms don’t originate in the King James version at all. Rather, they are to be found in Tyndale’s translation nearly a century earlier, or one of the other major versions of the 16th century. The relatively small total shouldn’t suprise us. The aim of the KJB translators, as they say in their preface, was not to make a new translation “but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principall good one”. They had little choice in the matter, as the guidelines for their work, which had been approved by the king, required them to use the Bishops’ Bible as their first model, making as few alterations as possible; and, when this was found wanting, they could refer to earlier versions. Unlike Shakespeare, they were not great linguistic innovators.
So we mustn’t exaggerate. It’s true to say, as several commentators do, that no other literary source has matched the KJB for the number of influential idioms it contains; but it isn’t true to say that it originated all of them. Rather, what it did was popularise them, so much so that it’s now impossible to find an area of contemporary expression that doesn’t from time to time use them, either literally or playfully.