William Tyndale’s memorable turns of phrase

William Tyndale (16th century) was a remarkable wordsmith responsible
for iconic turns of phrase like “the powers that be,”
“salt of the earth” and “eat, drink and be merry.”

By Douglas Parker

Most people won’t be surprised to learn that in his plays Shakespeare introduced several new words and phrases into the English language that are now a part of our contemporary lexicon. A quick Google search will list many of them. No doubt about it, Shakespeare is the master of linguistic and rhetorical inventiveness. Alexandre Dumas went one step further and claimed that, “After God, Shakespeare has created most.”

What is less well known, however, is that a writer who antedates Shakespeare by several years was also a remarkable wordsmith whose renowned translation of the New Testament (1526) was the first full printed edition in English and a major linguistic source for what has become known as the King James Bible (1611). William Tyndale was a committed and formidable Protestant polemicist, a major reformist figure of the troubled period known as the English Reformation. His most famous ideological and theological enemy was the Catholic apologist, martyr and future saint, Thomas More. Both men wrote blistering and inflammatory tracts attacking each other’s divergent theological positions.

Despite self-exiling on the continent for his own safety, Tyndale died a martyr for his heterodox beliefs under orders from Henry VIII – he was strangled and burned in 1526 near Vilvorde in present-day Belgium. Tyndale’s saint’s day, recognized by some Protestant denominations, is October 6, although unlike the Catholic Church, Protestant denominations do not subscribe to the intercessionary power of the saints. The Catholic More’s day is June 22. Presumably, these two are still duking it out on neutral ground somewhere between the Catholic heaven and the Protestant one!

In his edition of Tyndale’s New Testament, David Daniell provides us with a summary of Tyndale’s English wordsmithing as found in his rendering of the New Testament. For example, we are indebted to the great Protestant reformer for words such as “Passover”,“Jehovah” and “scapegoat.” In addition, we find the following terms and phrases that are lodged in our collective memories, some of them still in use today: “And God said, let there be light, and there was light;” “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you;” “Fight the good fight;” “Am I my brother’s keeper?” “The salt of the earth;” “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak;” “Eat, drink and be merry;” “The sign of the times;” “A law unto themselves;” “The powers that be;” “Filthy lucre” and “The patience of Job.”

All these innovative words and phrases are drawn only from Tyndale’s New Testament without taking into account what might still lie hidden in his many other writings. However, winkling those out might be a lifetime’s work and require someone – well, let’s say it – with the patience of Job.

Douglas Parker is a 29-year Glebe resident with an interest in English Reformation literature, history and theology.

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