H/T: The New Yorker (here)
An American King: Noah Webster’s Holy Bible
Posted by Jill Lepore
“There was once a man whose name was Job, who feared God and eschewethéd evil. And there were borne unto him seven sons and three daughters. And his substance was seven thousand sheep, and three thousand camels, and five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses. Then Satan said, Doth Job fear God for naught? And the Lord said: Doest thy worst. And behold, Satan slew all of Job’s animals, and every of his sons, and each of his daughters. And then he smote Job with boils, from the sole of his foot unto his crown. And Job rent his mantle and said, “Let the day perish, wherein I was born.”
Or so, more or less, saith the King James Bible, until Noah Webster undertooketh a revision. The King James was first printed in 1611, just when the English began crossing the Atlantic. They brought their bibles with them. Because the Crown held the copyright, it was illegal to print an English Bible in North America. But when the Continental Congress banned British imports in 1775, that ban included bibles so, even before the Revolution was over, Americans started printing them. “I tell you this is the very season and age of the Bible,” Mason Weems wrote in 1801. But Webster considered the King James ungrammatical, obsolete, and filthy. He also thought Americans didn’t need any king’s bible; they needed their own translation: an American bible. For a while, he thought Americans even needed their own alphabet. He’d published his American spelling book in 1783. In 1800, he declared his intention to compile a “Dictionary of the American Language,” a monumental work that took him a quarter century (and which I wrote about for this magazine in 2006). In 1829, the American Bible Society announced its plan to put a King James by every hearth. Webster found that horrifying, and set to work undertaking a his own revision, explaining, “I consider this emendation of the common version as the most important enterprise of my life.”
Webster’s “Holy Bible … with Amendments of the Language” appeared in 1833. In it, Job no longer eschews evil; he shuns it. “Shun seems to be a more correct word,” the grammarian explained. Also, no one is borne unto Job but is instead borne to him: “The first syllable un adds nothing to the signification or force of to, but by increasing the number of unimportant syllables, rather impairs the strength of the whole clause or sentenced in which it occurs.” Do to other prepositions as you would do to unto. Wherein, therein, whereon, thereon: “inelegant.” Eschew them. Then, too, think of the savings: by slaying the un in every unto, Webster spared the reader thirty-four pages of close-set type. Except that, in Webster’s, thou shalt not slay. Nor slew. Thou shalt kill. You can spit in Webster but you can’t spew; you can only vomit. And, while we’re at it, you can’t plague anyone, although I believe it’s possible to afflict them, if you really muck up their holy books.
There is a great deal of sucking in King James. (It was often said, in the seventeenth century, that the good book itself “gave suck.” “Milk for Babes, Drawn out of the Breasts of both Testaments” was the title of a popular catechism.) Not in Webster’s. Job was “nursed.” Other infants are “nourished.” Men have no stones in Webster, and women no teats. Maybe that’s part of why there is no fornication; there is only lewdness, and not much of that, either, because no one has legs, for the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve have naught but limbs. In Isaiah 36:12, a favorite passage of schoolboys, there are men who “eate their owne dongue and drinke their owne pisse”; Webster has them “devour their vilest excretions.” (If there had been snot in the scriptures, Webster would have made it mucous.) When Jesus has been dead for four days, in the King James (John 11:39), “he stinketh.” In Webster, “his body is offensive.” Webster explained this kind of thing this way: “Language which cannot be uttered in company without a violation of decorum or the rules of good breeding exposes the scriptures to the scoffs of unbelievers, impairs their authority, and multiplies or confirms the enemies of our holy religion.” He had very little faith in his fellow men.
The King James is four centuries old this year, an occasion for tributes and conferences and exhibits. No one remembers Webster’s. The King James has made many a reader swoon; Webster’s, not a one. Consider the carnal beauty of the twenty-second psalm: “I was cast upon thee from the wombe: thou art my God from my mother’s belly.” Webster, who slew mothers the way knights slew dragons, re-wrote this as: “I was cast upon thee from my birth: thou art my God from the time I was born.” In King James, Job curses the very light “Because it shut up not the doores of my mother’s wombe, nor hid sorrow from mine eyes.” In Webster’s, Job regrets that light prevented not his birth. In the King James, Job asks, “Why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the bellie?” In Webster’s, there are no bellies. And give up the ghost: that’s pagan. Instead, Webster’s Job asks, “Why did I not expire at the time of my birth?” It’s got the syntax of a question on a form prepared by the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
Webster began revising the King James when he was threescore and ten, or what he preferred to call seventy. (“It appears to me most eligible to retain but one mode of specifying numbers.”) Abraham Lincoln, born in 1809, sucked the King James, and good thing. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” If Lincoln had been weaned on Webster, the Gettysburg Address would have stinkethéd.