Winning English - Mastering Idioms, Slang, and Cultural References

The impact of the Bible on English • Let there be light • Rise and shine • See eye to eye • Go the extra mile • Put words in one's mouth • Drop in the bucket

Hello, everyone! My apologies, but I did not publish last week. It was a hectic week. 😅 But I’m back on the job for you! ✍️

In my last post, I discussed the impact of William Shakespeare on everyday English. That got me thinking about another major influence: the Bible.

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The Bible, of course, is the holy book of Christianity. Parts of it are sacred to Judaism and Islam, as well. But I’m not concerned with its religious content right now. I’m interested in how sayings and phrases from the Bible have become very common in everyday English speech and writing. These sayings and phrases are so common that many people don’t even realize they are quoting or referring to the Bible.

There are many Bibles

I’ll get to several examples in a moment, but first I want to give you a bit of history. The Bible originally was written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, so it had to be translated into English. There are many different English translations, but the King James Bible is a famous version. It was commissioned by King James (oddly enough), who was the ruler of what would become the United Kingdom. It was finished in 1611, so it has been influencing English for four hundred years!

Let there be examples!

Okay, that’s enough history. Let’s get to some examples of common sayings and phrases from the Bible.

Let there be light

First, let there be light. “Let there be light” comes from the Book of Genesis in the Bible. It’s part of that book’s story of how the world was created.

In English now, though, this phrase can be used when something is revealed or understood. It’s often used in a joking way. It tries to make the thing seem more important that it really is.

I think when most people use this phrase they know they are quoting the Bible because the language is very poetic. But that won’t be true of some of the other sayings.

Rise and shine

For example, there’s the saying, rise and shine! “Rise and shine” is a lighthearted saying people use when waking someone up in the morning. For example, if you are waking up dyour child for school, you might say, “Rise and shine! It’s time for another fun day!”

I think most people don’t realize that this phrase is a reference to a passage from the Book of Isaiah:

Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.

Some sources I read said this first became popular in the military and eventually made its way into everyday speech.

See eye to eye

Another common phrase is to say that two people see eye to eye. This also comes from the Book of Isaiah in this passage:

Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the Lord shall bring again Zion.

Now, originally, “see eye to eye” here meant that these people were going to meet physically in person - not over the phone or in a Zoom call. But it no longer means that. Instead, it means that two people agree with one another.

For example, you might say, “This corporate merger will go well. The two founders see eye to eye.” In other words, they agree on business strategy and so on.

By the way, in modern English when we want to say two people are meeting in person, we instead say they are meeting face-to-face.

Go the extra mile

The phrase to go the extra mile might sound like a bad thing - as if you have to do more work. But it’s actually a good thing!

When someone “goes the extra mile”, it means that he or she is working harder and doing more than people would normally be expected to.

For example, you might compliment someone at work by saying, “Wow, this presentation that you put together is really excellent. You really went the extra mile!”

This is a very common saying, but I think many people might not realize that they are referencing a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus says:

And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

Now, you probably noticed right away that this is very old-fashioned, poetic English. It’s from the King James Bible translation that I mentioned before. Phrasing it in more modern English, you might say, “If someone forces you to go a mile, go a second mile, too.”

Put words in one’s mouth

In the second book of Samuel, there’s a story of deceit and lying. In the story, a nephew of David, the king of Israel, recruits a woman to help him influence the king. As part of that plan, he tells the woman exactly what to say to the king. He tells her exactly what words to use. In a sense, he puts words in her mouth.

In modern English, this phrase has become a way to criticize someone that you think is being unfair to you. This phrase can be tricky to use. Let me give you a short example of a conversation:

Your spouse says to you, “Let’s go out to dinner tonight. Let’s go to my favorite restaurant.”

You respond, “No, let’s just eat at home instead.”

Your spouse responds, “You must really hate my favorite restaurant!”

You say, “What!? Of course not. I love that restaurant, too! Don’t put words in my mouth! I’m just tired tonight.”

In this example, the one person “put words in the mouth” of the other. The one person made it seem as if the other person was saying something that he or she wasn’t.

Drop in the bucket

I hope you’ve enjoyed these examples. There are many, many more. This is just a drop in the bucket, and I’ll cover more of them in future newsletters.

“Drop in the bucket”, by the way, comes from the Book of Isaiah again. (Isaiah is very quotable, it appears!) The original text reads:

Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance.

As you might be able to guess, if you describe something as a “drop in the bucket”, it is small and of little importance. It is just one drop of water in a giant bucket of water.

Want even more examples right now?

Are you interested in more examples? Please check out this page. It’s a very helpful resource. As I mentioned, I’ll cover more in the future, too.

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Mapping how words travel with global trade

I always like to give you a little something extra in the newsletter version of Winning English. Today, I have a graphic from a website I like a lot, Visual Capitalist. They produce a lot of interesting images, including the one below.

It’s very common for cultures to import words from other parts of the world. This is especially true for new products. See a few examples in the image and get a full explanation of this graphic here.

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