It is not surprising that people attribute special strengths to their nations, or their sports teams, or their religious texts. I have heard it seriously proposed, for instance, that the Bible gives us more evidence for the existence of Jesus than we have for the existence of George Washington, or that at any given time more people are reading the Bible from cover to cover to the exclusion of all else than are reading all the current bestsellers. Here's another one: No other book has influenced the English language more than has the King James Version of the Bible. Many people, and not just religious people, but writers and even linguists think this to be true. But is it true? Can the question be answered in a reasonable way that does not lean on mere enthusiasm from the book's adherents? David Crystal, a professor of linguistics and one who has written before about English within religion, thinks the question is good enough to merit the comprehensive attempt which he details in _Begat: The King James Bible & the English Language_ (Oxford University Press). We don't talk or write the way the compilers of that great translation did when it came out in 1611, so it might seem that its influence is small, and a full comparison of current prose to that of the KJV presents too many complications to contemplate. But Crystal has looked at idioms, not quotations but quasi-proverbial expressions that have become commonplace outside of religious tradition. How many there are would indicate, especially compared to other sources, how influential the KJV has been, and Crystal has counted them up. It's an exercise fraught with subjectivity; the notion of "influence" is difficult to evaluate. But by the idiom standard, with some caveats, the Bible is at the top, but the KJV isn't the one reason this is so.
It is fun to see these idioms together and realize how important they are as bricks in our constructions of thought. It reminded me of the joke about the person who goes to see Hamlet for the first time and is disappointed - "It's full of quotations everyone's heard before." In the way people have of playing with language, they are turned into puns or tweaked to make catchy headlines; indeed, Crystal uses the degree of such wordplay as a way of evaluating whether a phrase has become an idiom or not. There is "scapegoat" which comes from Leviticus, and is one of the very few genuinely Biblical words to enter English. It was so familiar a word in the century after the KJV's introduction that people were playing with it, inventing the "scape-horse" and "scape-rat." We still tinker: "scapegoatism" first showed up in 1961. "What hath God wrought" is straight from Numbers, but it is interesting that this expression was not used in anything but a strict religious way until Samuel Morse used it as a test message in 1844. Now you can find "What hath Google wrought" or "What hath Russia wrought" or plenty of others. People have changed it from the Bible's emphasis; "wrought" is a variant of "work," and means in the verse "create." But maybe because of an association with "wreak" (and the phrase that features it, "wreak havoc"), those that have "wrought" nowadays have done something negative; an article headed "What Bush Hath Wrought," for instance, is not sympathetic to the president. "Holier than thou" also seems not to have been used in a non-religious form until sometime in the twentieth century with the meaning "hypocritically pious." Crystal has turned up modern changes rung on the phrase, like "geekier than thou" or a food quiz called "Holier than chow." The poignant verse from John, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends," has been abridged to "No greater love" on memorials, and is the title of books and films. The sentiment might seem to be one that would not repay kidding, but "Greater love hath no fan" said a boasting _Star Wars_ geek. (Crystal does not mention the best pun from the line, in _Ulysses_ made by Stephen among the partying boisterous students making bawdy talk: "Greater love than this, he said, no man hath that a man lay down his wife for his friend.")
So, how does it total up? The magic number is 257. That is, Crystal has counted 257 phrases or words that are now idiomatic. He admits that classifying them so is to some extent subjective, and that other people would total other numbers, but that they will not vary far from his own count. Those who say there are thousands are just wrong. He has tabulated these idioms and broken them down, showing how few of them take the exact form found in the KJV (18), or how many times the KJV isn't original but picked up a prior translation (like the Tyndale, Geneva, or Wycliffe), and so on. 257 isn't bad, when you consider that Shakespeare by the same criteria scores about 100. Along the way Crystal has interesting remarks about the _lack_ of influence of the KJV. There is no accounting for why we know about "pearls before swine," but we are far less familiar with the proverb, "As a jewel of gold in a swine's snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion." The fashion of lexical repetition did not last; an editor would never let through, from Exodus, "Every man that offered offered an offering of gold unto the Lord." Crystal seems an indefatigable researcher (his dependence upon Google is credited), but he has a light touch and jokes about looking for examples of "nothing new under the sun" that "... it's the name of an episode of _Baywatch_ (1995) whose significance I did not have the energy to research." We are coming up on the 400th anniversary of the KJV, and there are sure to be celebrations, but this one is unique. Crystal has offered an interesting way to increase our understanding of the influence of a brilliant original.