On the English Language

John Derbyshire in his diary on NRO blogged this language observation earlier this month.

Regardless of what you think of religion in general, or Christianity in particular, all those past centuries of widespread Bible reading were wonderfully enriching to our language. Now that is all slipping away, and our language is correspondingly poorer. I noticed this a few years ago, when I complained to my Wall Street boss, a lady with a degree from a good university and a six-digit salary, that in giving me a project to complete without the proper means to complete it, she was asking me to make bricks without straw. She stared at me uncomprehendingly. “Bricks? Straw? What on earth are you talking about, John?”

It happened again the other day. In conversation with some intelligent and well-educated Americans, I used the word “covet.” Blank looks. Then, nervously (I am not a stranger to these people): “Er, John, do you mean… cover?” No, I said, I meant “covet,” as in the Tenth Commandment. You know: Thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s ox, nor his ass… Now they were looking at each other as if I had lapsed into Klingon. Where is Roy Moore when you need him?

I agree. Our language and our country are built on stories and ideas of the Bible, particularly the King James translation, though Shakespeare used the Bishops Bible, I believe, and the Pilgrims used the Geneva Bible, a type of Reformation study Bible. Regardless the specific translation or printing most used during the founding of the United States, the English Bible has molded our cultural language use after its image.

The lead editor of the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., agrees.

No one in the English-speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible. Literate people in India, whose religious traditions are not based on the Bible but whose common language is English, must know about the Bible in order to understand English within their own country. All educated speakers of American English need to understand what is meant when someone describes a contest as being between David and Goliath, or whether a person who has the “wisdom of Solomon” is wise or foolish, or whether saying “My cup runneth over” means the person feels fortunate or unfortunate.

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