The Influence of Hebrew on the English Language – an Excerpt from Beginning Biblical Hebrew

The following is an excerpt from Beginning Biblical Hebrew, by John Cook and Robert Holmstedt.


Hebrew may be considered one of the most historically and religiously significant of the Semitic languages, both because of the size of its textual remains by comparison with the other Semitic languages and the enduring religious nature of the primary text. That is, the Hebrew Bible contains the single largest body of ancient Semitic literature and has remained a core religious text for Judaism and Christianity for over two thousand years. Indeed, the impact of Hebrew on Western culture can scarcely be overstated…

Cover ArtHebrew was especially influential on the English language through the attention to the Hebrew Bible given by the Puritans in England. From 1549 Hebrew was a required language for an MA degree at Cambridge. The poet John Milton (1608–74) read and wrote Hebrew fluently, and he was appointed Secretary for Foreign Languages by Cromwell. The noted legal scholar John Selden (1584–1654) studied biblical and talmudic legal writings in helping to reshape British jurisprudence.

Most important, the rather literal rendering of the Hebrew Bible by the translators of the King James Bible (1611) has made numerous Hebrew idioms and proverbial expressions commonplace in modern English:

“to lick the dust” (Ps. 72:9)
“to fall flat on one’s face” (Num. 22:31)
“heavy heart” (Prov. 25:20)
“to pour out one’s heart” (Lam. 2:19)
“the land of the living” (Job 28:13)
“nothing new under the sun” (Eccles. 1:9)
“sour grapes” (Ezek. 18:2)
“rise and shine” (variant on “arise, shine” in Isa. 60:1)
“pride goes before a fall” (Prov. 16:18)
“the skin of my teeth” (Job 19:20)
“to put words in one’s mouth” (Exod. 4:15)
“like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isa. 53:7)
“a drop in a bucket” (variant on “a drop from a bucket” in Isa. 40:15)
“a fly in the ointment” (from Eccles. 10:1)
“to see the writing on the wall” (from Dan. 5:5)
“a man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14)

©2013 by John A. Cook and Robert D. Holmstedt. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.


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