Dead Words and False Friends in the KJV

I recently purchased a book in my Logos 7 Bible Software by Mark L. Ward, Jr., entitled: Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. In the book, Ward points out the fact that the King James Bible is the only 1611 release that is still on any best seller’s list! He also points out the fact that many common sayings, such as; “By the skin of his teeth” and “A labor of love” are taken directly from the King James Version of the Bible. But the highlight and meat of the book is Ward’s insightful handling of what he calls; “dead words” and “false friends” in the KJV.

Dead words are words found in the KJV that were in common use when the KJV was published in 1611, but are no longer in common use today. A good example is the word; “leasing” which is found in Psalm 4:2 and Psalm 5:6. The word has nothing to do with renting a domicile or a building, but rather denotes; the act of lying or falsehood. Another good example is “champaign” (pronounced exactly the same as the wine beverage), which was the term used for open level countryside in Deuteronomy 11:30. Ward list several more dead words, but readily points out the fact that dead words are really no problem for the modern English reader of the KJV because they are easy to recognize.

However, the greatest pitfall for the modern English reader of the KJV is undoubtedly the danger of failing to recognize “false friends.” Ward defines false friends as; “Words that are still in common use but have changed meaning in ways that modern readers are highly unlikely to recognize. Many words and phrases in the KJV are still in use but meant different things in seventeenth-century England—and yet what they now mean makes sufficient sense in context that most readers don’t notice the change. They don’t realize they need to look these words up.”[1] The example of false friends that Ward illustrates and analyzes in detail include the word; “halt” in story of the Prophet Elijah’s confrontation with Israel and the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18:21. In modern use, the term “halt” primarily means to “stop.” But that is not the usage that was prevalent in 1611, when the KJV was first published. Ward points out that although some modern versions such as the NASB (New American Standard Bible) and the NIV (New International Version) render the meaning of “hesitating” or “wavering,” the ESV (English Standard Version) gives the meaning the KJV translators had in mind with their use of the word. In 1611, the common use for the word “halt” was to limp or be crippled. This is the same meaning of the word in Luke 14:21 (KJV). Elijah was not asking the people how long were they going to stop, or even waver or hesitate between two opinions. He wanted to know how long would they limp or be crippled by their indecisiveness!

Ward cites several more false friends found in the KJV, such as “conversation.” Today, the word means dialogue or talk, but in 1611, the word was commonly used to denote all of one’s dealings with another, hence, manner of life or conduct. The Apostle encourage his readers to “love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous.” Today “pitiful” means to be pathetic or weak, but in 1611, the word meant to show pity and compassion for others.

As I was reading Ward’s book, I thought of a few “false friends” that he didn’t mention (of course Ward never claims to cite them all; his work is primarily to alert us of their existence), such as “faint” in Luke 18:1. Jesus said, “Men ought to always pray and not faint.” Today, the word primarily means to feel dizzy and lose consciousness, but in 1611, the primary meaning was to lose courage or to give up! What about when we read in the KJV that we are to be “careful” for nothing? But we tell one another everyday to be careful! Well, careful today means to take precautions and be mindful of potential problems or danger, but in 1611, it’s primary meaning was to be anxious and worried. So, when Jesus says to Martha in Luke 10:41, “Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things.” He was not complimenting her on her good housekeeping skills, he was telling her that she was anxious and filled with anxiety.

I was happy to know that “unicorns” really are real, because they are in the KJV Bible! But the unicorn in the KJV was not the mythological one-horned horse that we know, but rather was a wild ox! In fact, the unicorn in Psalm 22:21 apparently had more than one horn, because the author prays; “Save me from the lion’s mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.”

Ward’s book is on my “suggested reading list” for a greater understanding of the Bible and the use of the English language for all preachers, teachers, and serious students of the Bible. If you don’t own Logos Bible Software, the book can also be purchased in Kindle and paperback formats from Amazon.com.

                1. Mark Ward, Authorized: The Use & Misuse of the King James Bible. Edited by Elliot Ritzema, Lynnea Fraser, and Danielle Thevenaz. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2018),  31.