Jeffrey McQuain, coauthor of Coined by God (Norton) and The Bard on the Brain (Dana Press), is the longtime language consultant for William Safire, who is on vacation.
“In religion,” George Gray challenges a contestant on TV’s Weakest Link game show, “what is the third book in the Old Testament of the King James Bible?”
The player replies, “Revelations.”
That’s wrong on two counts. The third book of the Bible is actually Leviticus, which chronicles the laws and rituals overseen by the priestly Levites. Less obvious, however, is the mistake in saying “Revelations,” because the Bible contains no such book.
Instead, the final book of the New Testament is titled “Revelation,” without an “s.” This error has appeared frequently in print, from a Chicago Tribune quotation on “the apocalyptic messages that are found in Revelations” to Maureen Dowd’s New York Times mention of “a musical based on the Book of Revelations.”
Bible experts consider that kind of mistake a shibboleth, from a story in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) about using words as a test. In the 12th chapter of Judges, the conquering Gileadites are able to identify their enemies, the conquered Ephraimites, by making them say the word “shibboleth,” meaning “ear of corn.” Because of language differences, the Ephraimites pronounce it “sibboleth” and are immediately executed.
Today the penalties for mispronunciation tend to be less severe, although a shibboleth still acts to identify outsiders. The Washington suburb of Silver Spring is wrongly turned into the plural “Silver Springs” by newcomers, just as native New Yorkers know that the name of Houston Street should never sound like a Texas city. (That street name is properly pronounced HOW-ston.)
In terms of modern Bible references, Cole Porter was no colporteur, but the great lyricist would probably have noted that nowadays “anything goes.” Hollywood is offering the irreverent humor of Jim Carrey’s film Bruce Almighty, while Mel Gibson’s coming movie, The Passion, a controversial drama about the Crucifixion, takes its script from Scripture. From the Left Behind novels based on Revelation to the board game Bibleopoly (a faithful version of Monopoly that replaces “Go” with “In the Beginning” and “Jail” with “Meditation”), biblical borrowing has been on the rise, and language is no exception.
“Bible” itself comes from the Greek biblos, “book.” Of Semitic origin, the word was derived from exporting papyrus through the ancient Phoenician port of Byblos, now known as Jubayl, Lebanon. Although the Good Book’s name is always capitalized, the word “bible” may be lowercased for manuals on everything from grammar to body sculpturing. In fact, some bookstores now devote more shelf space to “computer bibles” than to religious titles.
Eponymous phrases based on biblical names have been increasing, from the disturbance of raising Cain (the Bible’s first killer) to the desperation of football’s Hail Mary (a pass named for a prayer to the Virgin Mary). Religious holidays have lent the language such terms as Christmas trees, pipe assemblies that cap oil wells, and Easter eggs, bonus features hidden on DVDs.
Unfortunately, Bible mistakes are also multiplying. In a March briefing about the imminent war with Iraq, Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman at the time, said, “The President is going the last mile for diplomacy.” The ominous last mile is meant to mark the final steps of a condemned prisoner; instead, what Jesus says in Matthew 5:41 is “And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.” That distance is now most often called the extra mile. Fleischer corrected himself later in the briefing: “And in these final stages, the President is going the extra mile. That extra mile will come to an end.” Today the trucking company known as Big G Express carries the motto “Going the Extra Mile.”
Numbers of other phrases made popular by the King James Version of 1611 are being updated. Take “all things to all men” in I Corinthians 9:22, which President George W. Bush prefers in a more gender-neutral form. During a 2000 presidential debate, the Born-again Bush said of international involvements, “We can’t be all things to all people in the world.” More widely varied is “eat, drink and be merry,” borrowed from Ecclesiastes and Luke. Perhaps its most out-of-this-world use in advertising comes from the Mars 2112 restaurant in Manhattan, inviting customers to “Eat, drink and meet Martians.”
Already altered is the common expression “an eye for an eye” (reduced in license-plate lingo to NI4NI). Its genesis was in John Wycliffe’s 1382 translation, where it was simply “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24). Not until 150 years later did William Tyndale add the indefinite articles. Lest this phrase be dismissed as some long-obsolete practice, consider an Associated Press report from Riyadh: “Sobbing and expressing regret for his actions, an Egyptian man had his left eye surgically removed in the first eye-for-an-eye punishment in Saudi Arabia in over 40 years.” The Egyptian, who had thrown acid onto another man’s face, received this Old Testament justice in 2000.
Some of today’s Bible errors are rooted in incomplete quoting. For instance, there is a popular but misguided saying that “Money is the root of all evil.” In the New Testament, however, Paul tries to eradicate this notion, writing in I Timothy 6:10 that cupidity or “the love of money is the root of all evil.”
Other mistakes are based in biology. The favorable phrase “apple of his eye,” found in Deuteronomy 32:10, comes from an ancient belief that the eye’s center is solid like an apple. Similarly the “voice of the turtle,” in Song of Solomon 2:12, is actually a bird’s call, not a terrapin’s (“turtle” in this case is short for “turtledove”).
Biblical errors are certainly nothing new under the sun. A Woman of No Importance, an 1892 play by Oscar Wilde, brings up the Bible. Lord Illingworth observes, “The Book of Life begins with a man and a woman in a garden,” and Mrs. Allonby replies, “It ends with Revelations.”