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Short and Sweet

May 11, 2021

By Jim Rhodes

A few months ago, I posted an essay on Winston Churchill. In it, I commented on his powerful prose style characterized by strings of punchy one-syllable words in his speeches and writings.

Since then — being a lifelong student of words and language — I have given a good deal of thought to the antecedents from which Churchill’s literary style derived.

These two stand out.

The first is William Shakespeare, and the second is the King James translation of the Bible (especially the Old Testament), which was published in 1611 while Shakespeare was still alive (he died April 23, 1616). Churchill would have been very familiar with both.

First, Shakespeare, whom I shamelessly adore …

Consider these brief gems.

Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2

The evil that men do lives after them.

The good is oft interred with their bones.

(13 single-syllable words out of 16)

Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2

It is my lady, O it is my love

O that she knew she were.

(14 of 15)

Hamlet, Act V, Scene 2

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince

And flight of angels sing thee to thy rest.

(16 of 18)

King Lear, Act V, Scene 3

The weight of this sad time we must obey,

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,

The oldest hath borne most; we that are young

Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

(34 of 37)

Likewise, a few random samples from the King James Old Testament …

Isaiah 45:5-6

“I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me. I girded thee, though thou hast not known me. That they may know from the rising of the sun and from the west that there is none beside me. I am the Lord and there is no one else.”  (49 of 53)

Ecclesiastes 9:3-4

“This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all;  yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live,  and after that they go to the dead.  For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion.” (61 of 73)

Psalms 115: 11-13

“Ye that fear the Lord, trust in the Lord: he is their help and their shield.  The Lord hath been  mindful of us: he will bless us; he will bless the house of Israel; he will bless the house of Aaron. He will bless them that fear the Lord, both small and great.” (50 of 53)

Lamentations 3:1-4

“I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. He hath led me, and brought me into darkness, but not into light. Surely against me he is turned; he turneth his hand against me all the day. My flesh and my skin hath he made old; he hath broken my bones.” (49 of 56)

Shakespeare, of course, was a genius. And the King James translation was a work of collective genius. I stand in awe of both, but especially of the committee of 47 scholars and divines, who not only made a totally new translation from the ancient Greek and Hebrew texts, but also created an enduring work of such astounding literary merit. Surely no other committee in human history ever produced such a book.

One final note of interest.

The 1631 edition of the King James Bible contained a printing error. The word “not” was inadvertently omitted in the commandment against adultery. (“Thou shalt commit adultery.”). The error was fixed in the next edition, hopefully before too much damage was done to the chastity of the kingdom. The printer paid a fine of 300 pounds.

Just goes to show that even the greatest writers need editors.