The Bible Word-Book, by William Aldis Wright2011 will be widely celebrated as the 400th anniversary of the ‘King James Bible’, the ‘Authorized Version . . . Appointed to be Read in Churches’. Both Cambridge University Press and its Oxford counterpart (and doubtless many other publishers) will be publishing commemorative works on the history of the translation, its reception, its influence on the development of the English language, and its continuing relevance.

We have of course been here before – in 1911, to be precise. And before that, in 1881, when the first part (the New Testament) of the Revised Version of the Bible, intended to adapt the King James version ‘to the present state of the English language without changing the idiom and vocabulary’, and ‘to the present standard of Biblical scholarship’ was published. This was the first authoritative English translation since 1611, and was a work of international co-operation, in which American Revision Committees corresponded with their British colleagues. Among the latter were the great biblical scholars such as Tregelles, Hort, Westcott and Scrivener, whose work over previous decades in producing new editions of the Greek texts of the Bible was one of the keystones of the Revised Version. (Read more on this undertaking here.)

With the help and advice of our colleagues in the Bibles department at Cambridge University Press, we have reissued in the Collection four titles which reflect earlier commemorations.

F.H.A. Scrivener’s The New Testament in Greek: According to the Text Followed in the Authorised Version Together With the Variations Adopted in the Revised Version (1881) does what it says on the tin: it provided scholars with both a faithful version of the Greek text as originally used by the translators of the Authorised Version, and extensive notes listing the changes in readings made for the Revised Version, giving the reader a fuller picture of the evolution of the translation.

Scrivener also wrote The Authorized Version of the English Bible (1611): Its Subsequent Reprints and Modern Representatives (first published in 1884, reissued in 1910), drawing on his knowledge of the history and reception of the AV. (It is interesting to note that ‘Authorised’ and ‘Authorized’ are both used by the same scholars in different publications. In my copy-editing days, I was taught to use the ‘z’ in this one context, even if the rest of the book used ‘s’ . . .)

An American scholar, Henry Barker, wrote English Bible Versions: A Tercentenary Memorial of the King James Version, published in New York in 1911, which gives a full historical account of the manuscript origins of the Bible, the development of the biblical canon and the early efforts, made by reformers, such as Wyclif in the fourteenth century and Tyndale in the sixteenth, to translate the Bible into the vernacular and thus make its content more accessible to the laity. Barker provides a clear and factual account not only of the evolution of the Bible in English but also of the background of social and political change that fostered the various early translations.

But my favourite is The Bible Word-Book: A Glossary of Archaic Words and Phrases in the Authorised Version of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer, by William Aldis Wright, first published in 1866 and reissued in a new edition in 1884. Wright (1831–1914), until now better know to us as the co-editor of the Cambridge Shakespeare, was first Librarian and then Bursar of Trinity College, Cambridge, and was Secretary to the Old Testament Company of the English Committee for the Revised Version. Wright’s intention was ‘to explain and illustrate all such words, phrases, and constructions, in the Authorised Version of the Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha, and in the Book of Common Prayer, as are either obsolete or archaic’. (This covers a great deal of ground, especially the ‘constructions’ – the first word glossed is ‘a, an’, in such contexts as ‘an hammer’, ‘an half’, ‘a-dying’, ‘a-cold’.  The last word is ‘yourselves’, used in the nominative.)

Wright’s first edition drew upon the unpublished work of Jonathan Eastwood (1824–64). In the preface to the second edition, he observes: ‘When this work, which for want of a better title is still called The Bible Word-Book, was first issued, I did not expect that eighteen years would pass before its imperfections and shortcomings were to some extent made good in a second edition.’ But college duties and the small matter of the Revised Version got in the way . . . ‘In one respect this delay has been of advantage, for in the course of Revision work my attention has been called to the language of the Authorised Version, sentence by sentence, phrase by phrase, and word by word, in such a way that I trust nothing of importance has escaped my notice.’

This is not a book you read: you look things up in it, and as with most good dictionaries and reference works, one thing leads to another. . . I was leafing through the first copy of our reissue, when I came across ‘Eftsoons’. I don’t pretend to be able to recall huge tracts of the Bible verbatim, as John Ruskin could, but I couldn’t quite hear it as a Biblical word. And I couldn’t, because it isn’t. One of the joys of the Bible Word-Book is that it doesn’t just cover the Bible and Prayer Book: the word is listed because it occurs in the Act of Uniformity of Queen Elizabeth (1559), which imposed the use of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer in churches and so institutionalised the use of the vernacular which eventually led to the King James Version of the Bible. The supporting quotations are from More’s Utopia, Spenser’s Faerie Queen, Sylvester’s Du Bartas, The Tropheis (??? – your guess is as good as mine!) and Holland’s translation of Plutarch’s Moralia.

So, if you are interested in the language not just of the Bible and the Prayer Book but also of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, you will want a copy of this book. Andirons of jacinth, houghed beeves, bolled blains, gazingstocks, anyone?


This entry was posted in History, Language and Linguistics, Literary Studies, Printing and Publishing History, Religious Studies and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Eftsoons!

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