The Words for the Word.
What's a sure-fire way these days to tackle a problem and delay its solution? Appoint a committee. But committees have known better days. In Wide as the Waters (2001), Benson Bobrick recounts the astonishing tale of how a committee produced the King James Version of the Bible.
The king himself was the irresistible force behind the project. In July 1604 he approved a list of 54 translators, who were to work under three principal directors: Edward Lively, the regius professor of Hebrew at Cambridge University; John Harding, the regius professor of Hebrew at Oxford University; and Lancelot Andrewes, the dean of Westminster. The translators were divided into six companies, based two each at Oxford, Cambridge, and Westminster (the universities were encouraged to turn for help to other knowledgeable scholars), and the great labor was then portioned out: Three companies tackled the Old Testament, two the New, and one the Apocrypha. "The First Westminster Company," writes Bobrick, "was assigned Genesis through 2 Kings; the Second, Romans through Jude; the First Oxford Company, Isaiah through Malachi; the Second, the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation; the First Cambridge Company, 1 Chronicles through the Song of Solomon; the Second, the Apocrypha."
It all sounds like a recipe for impasse and delay. But no. The work of translation, review, and revision went on for some six years, during which time the companies consulted every known text, commentary, and translation, ancient or modern. The groups cloaked themselves in anonymity, and we can only surmise the contributions individual members made to the finished version.
When the first copies of the new Bible were printed, in 1611, the English language was transformed. The 19th-century historian Thomas Macaulay made the point: "If everything else in our language should perish, [the King James Bible] would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power." Bobrick provides the bare beginnings of a roll call of those who over the centuries have spoken and written a language learned from this Bible: Jonathan Swift, Edmund Burke, Patrick Henry, William Blake, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Thomas Carlyle, Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, Winston Churchill, D. H. Lawrence. And he reminds us how often--and perhaps how unwittingly--we still speak the words of that miraculous committee: labor of love, lick the dust, clear as crystal, a thorn in the flesh, a soft answer, the root of all evil, the fat of the land, the sweat of thy brow, hip and thigh, arose as one man, a broken reed, a word in season, how the might y are fallen, the eleventh hour, pearls before swine, a law unto themselves, weighed in the balance and found wanting, the shadow of death.