Last Writes

Richard Lederer brings us Good Words From the Good Book

This year marks the four hundredth anniversary of the completion and printing of the most famous translation of the Bible, the King James version.

James I, who fancied himself a scholar and theologian, decided to assure his immortality by sponsoring a new Bible worthy of the splendor of his kingdom. To this end, James appointed a commission of fifty-four learned clerical and lay scholars, divided into three groups in Cambridge, Westminster, and Oxford. Seven years of loving labor, 1604- 1611, produced what John Livingston Lowes called “the noblest monument of English prose.” Few readers would dissent from that verdict.

While the spiritual values of the Bible have influenced many cultures for centuries, the enduring effect of the Bible on the English language is often overlooked. The fact is, though, that a great number of biblical words, references, and expressions have become part of our everyday speech, so that even people who don’t read the Bible carry its text on their tongues.

Here are ten biblically inspired words, each of which you are asked to identify. Answers immediately follow the quiz.

1. In ancient times, a _______ was a unit of weight, and this weight of silver or gold constituted a monetary unit, one that figures prominently in a famous parable of Jesus: “For the kingdom of heaven is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods. And unto one he gave five _______ s, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability.” (Matthew 25:14-15).

The most common modern meaning of the word _______ — some special, often God-given ability or aptitude — is a figurative development from the parable.

2. An obstacle: “Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a _______ before the blind, but shalt fear thy God.” (Leviticus 19:14)

3. A special celebration: “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a _______ unto you.” (Leviticus 25:10)

4. “Now when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven devils. And she went and told them that had been with him, as they mourned and wept.” (Mark 16:9-10) Mary Magdalene became a favorite subject of medieval and Renaissance painters, who traditionally depicted her as weeping. The tearful Mary was portrayed so sentimentally that, over the years, her name has been transformed into the word _______ , which has come to mean “tearfully sentimental.”

5. A final, decisive battle, marked by overwhelming slaughter: “And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue _______ ... And there were voices, and thunders, and lightnings; and there was a great earthquake, such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great.” (Revelation 16:16,18)

6. Anything of enormous size: “Behold now _______ , which I made with thee... Behold, he drinketh up a river and hasteth not: he trusteth that he can draw up Jordan into his mouth.” (Job 40:15, 23).

7. Anything of enormous size: “In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish _______ the piercing serpent, even _______ that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea.” (Isaiah 27:1)

8. “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow! She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!”

This is a typically dark passage in one of the prophetic books, from which we derive the word _______ , meaning a sorrowful tirade, extended lament, or bitter denunciation.

9. “Then the Lord of the _______ gathered them together for to offer a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god, and to rejoice.” (Judges 16:23). Because the nation described above were an alien, non-Semitic people who worshiped strange gods, their name became a term for a foreigner. Nineteenth-century philosophers, such as Thomas Carlyle and Matthew Arnold, further changed the meaning of the word so that today _______ is a derogatory term for one who shuns intellectual and cultural activities.

10. In Judges 12:5-6, we learn about a conflict between the peoples of Gilead and Ephraim: “And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites; and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; then they said unto him, Say now _______” (Judges 12:5-6).

Because the Ephraimites didn’t have the sh sound in their language, they could not pronounce the word correctly, and 42,000 of them were slain. That’s how the word _______ has acquired the meaning that it has today: a password, catchword, or slogan that distinguishes one group from the other.

1. talent
2. stumbling block
3. jubilee
4. maudlin
5. armageddon
6. behemoth
7. leviathan
8. jeremiad
9. philistine
10. shibboleth

Richard Lederer M.A.T. English and Education, Ph.D. Linguistics, is the author of more than 35 books on language, history, and humor. Explore his web site
Write him at [email protected]