In my recent book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, I argued that there were two major kinds of archaic words in the KJV, not one.
And in the most flagrant example I’ve ever seen of plagiarism by time machine, I just discovered a commentator from 150 years ago saying precisely the same thing.
In his Lectures Exegetical and Practical on the Epistle of James, published in 1871, Robert Johnstone quotes a verse from the King James Version:
If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain. (James 1:26 KJV)
The KJV or “Authorized Version” was the standard English Bible translation of Johnstone’s day. He comments, gently and respectfully,
Our authorized version, admirable on the whole alike for accuracy and for perspicuity and beauty of expression, appears to lack somewhat of its customary excellence in the rendering of this verse; for in one or two points it is obscure, if not misleading. (156–157)
Commentators say this sort of thing all the time: such-and-such translation could do better here. But let’s look at the particular reasons Johnstone chose to make his comment. He’ll provide us some categories that are helpful for our use of the KJV in our own day. And I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to steal my arguments in Authorized before it was ever published. I cannot sue him because of 1 Corinthians 6, but I’m considering my options.
His argument is precisely the same as my own: he starts by noting “dead words” in the KJV:
When you meet such a word as “ouches,” “taches,” “days-man,” you see at once that it is a stranger in modern English; and if you wish to understand what you read, and do not merely go over a chapter mechanically, under the idea that you are serving God and benefiting yourselves by passing the eye over the words, you ask a well-informed friend, or consult a book, what the obsolete word means. (157)
When you run across a dead word, you know you don’t know it—and you therefore know to turn to a dictionary, or a friend, to ferret its meaning out. This is a problem, but not an insurmountable one for a skilled and dedicated reader.
But then Johnstone turns to what I call in my book “false friends.” He mentions three in particular: nephew, carriage, and devotions. These are all words we still use (and were still used in 1871), but they all meant something different in 1611.
But when you read, “If any widow have children or nephews,” and do not know that everywhere in our version this word means “grandson[s];” when you are told that Paul and his company “took up their carriages, and went up to Jerusalem,” or that “David left his carriage in the hands of the keeper of the carriage,” and forget that with our translators “carriage” meant “baggage;” when you hear Paul saying to the Athenians, “As I passed by , and beheld your devotions, I found an altar,” and do not know that by these the translators intend the outward objects connected with what we now call devotion—temples, images, and the like;—in these and other similar cases you might easily go unconsciously altogether astray as to the sense of the passage. (157–158)
Johnstone sees both “dead words” and “false friends” as threats to the usefulness in his day of the King James Version. He doesn’t blame the KJV translators one bit for the presence of these words; he simply points to the natural process of language change.
He quotes R.C. Trench’s On the Authorized Version of the New Testament to show that this humanly undirected process can wreak havoc on understanding:
Words wholly unused in the English of our own time “are like rocks which stand out of the sea: we are warned of their presence, and there is little danger of our making shipwreck upon them. But words like those which have just been cited, as familiar now as when our version was made, but employed in quite different meanings from those which they then possessed, are like hidden rocks, which give no notice of their presence, and on which we may be shipwrecked, if I may so say, without so much as being aware of it. (158)
It’s clear, then, Johnstone says, which of the two major categories of language change is more detrimental to readability. And it’s just what I said: it’s false friends.
Change of meaning is a source of error which has affected a considerable number of words in the English Bible; and there is plainly more danger of misunderstanding passages where these occur, than passages where words occur which are now entirely out of use. (157)
Even before the widespread adoption of the electric light bulb, radio, and automobiles, false friends hindered readers from understanding “a considerable number” of KJV words.
As I say in my book, the KJV is not wholly unintelligible. And it is surely beautiful. But attentive and highly skilled readers—people who want others to understand the Bible and who work hard to help them—have been noticing dead words and false friends in the KJV for a very long time.
Neither I nor Johnstone nor Trench are “picking on” the venerable King James Version. All Elizabethan English, including Shakespeare and Milton, has suffered the effects of language change over the past 400-plus years. The process has only continued since Johnstone wrote. Bible readers who use the KJV, whether often or just a tittle, need to be aware of this fact. They can get some help from Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as an Academic Editor at Lexham Press, the publishing imprint at Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.