The KJV and Archaic Words

The King James Version is a 400-year-old translation. Not only that but, by the king's instruction, a good bit of its language was also carried over with little alteration from previous translations, some of which are nearly 100 years older. As a consequence, even in its own day, some of the KJV's language was already a bit old fashioned. Over time, all languages change. Among those changes is that words which were once popular can drop out of use entirely. These words are often called "archaic." They are words that once existed in a given language but are now unknown to the average speaker or reader. Quite understandably, the KJV contains a large number of such archaic words. Over the last 4-5 centuries, English vocabulary has changed tremendously. Many words that were quite commonplace in 1611 and earlier have become nearly or completely incomprehensible today. This can pose a problem for contemporary readers who wish to approach the Bible with full understanding. When one has to read with the Bible in one hand and the Oxford English Dictionary in the other, it can become quite disruptive to really taking in and absorbing the train of thought.

Some Vital Caveats

We have to be careful, however, not to exaggerate the problem or present it in an overly simplistic manner. Archaic words are a difficulty, but they are not always as huge a problem as they can at first appear. There are a number of words that are archaic but whose meaning is nonetheless discernible without outside help. For example, "Armhole," (see Jeremiah 38:12) is archaic, but it means exactly what it sounds like it would mean; holes for your arms (i.e. sleeves). It may not be a term we generally use today, but the meanings of such terms are so obvious that they are hardly worth noting. Similarly, forms of verbs ending in -eth are generally archaic, but they are often forms of otherwise familiar verbs: believeth, standeth, speaketh, striketh, killeth, stinketh, etc. These kinds of archaisms (for which the KJV is well known) have an old-fashioned flair to them, but it's not hard to figure out what they mean. They are just old forms of familiar words.

Similarly, there are old words that are no longer common but are still used just often enough that most of us know what they mean. Words like "abode," "albeit," "amiss," or "amiable" are dated and rare today, but not altogether unknown. For example, we will occasionally refer to our home as our "humble abode." What's more, though no one uses "abode" as a verb anymore (meaning "stayed; remained; dwelled"), since many of us still know that the noun form means a "home, residence, or dwelling place," the verb form is probably not too difficult for most readers to figure out. Though the number of readers who do not know these words at all will continue to increase throughout the English-speaking world, such archaisms are, right now, still familiar to enough people to leave them off a list of truly challenging archaic words in the KJV. That said, if you are reading this article and don't know some or all of those words, there is no shame in that, and your tribe will only continue to increase! The words are archaic and rare. They have been replaced by new words and will increasingly be forgotten.

There are also concepts for which there simply is no common, everyday, modern word. The KJV refers to a certain farm implement as a coulter (1 Samuel 13:20) while modern translations call it a mattock. For many readers, especially those who have never lived on or worked a farm, the updated term is as alien as the old one. The issue in such cases is not really the terminology but rather our cultural disconnect from the agrarian and pastoral worlds. Much of the Bible takes place among people living and working in an environment that is radically unlike our modern life. For that reason, it does, at times, require us to learn new words simply to accurately describe that world.

Often for similar reasons, though sometimes simply out of tradition, there are some archaic words that persist in all or nearly all modern translations and thus are not a problem that is in any way unique to the KJV. For example, "alamoth" (see 1 Chronicles 15:20) means the high-noted sounds of female voices or treble instruments. The word is retained in most major modern translations. If the word is a problem, switching to a modern translation will not fix that problem. Thus, it seems fair to say that one must expect and accept that in any translation they will encounter at least some archaic or unfamiliar words whose meaning is not altogether obvious. These are words we will simply need to learn and remember if we are to read the text with full understanding. Still, it should also be obvious that such instances should be kept to a minimum. Words that make no sense to the intended readers should only be used if there is no equally good way of expressing the same thing in a familiar, modern word or phrase. The purpose of a translation is to make the Bible readable and understandable to a common person who does not know Greek or Hebrew. A translation whose clarity is unnecessarily clouded by unknown words is less equipped to fulfill that purpose, even if it was once quite clear back when those words were in common use.

Is Context Enough?

King James Only advocates will often claim that such words, though unknown, are almost always easily discernible simply by reading the context. They point, for example, to where God says through Isaiah:

"I will also make it a possession for the bittern, and pools of water: and I will sweep it with the besom of destruction, saith the Lord of hosts," (Isaiah 14:23, KJV).

Since the verb here is "sweep," we are assured that it would be obvious to anyone that a "besom" must be a "broom." After all, what else would God be sweeping with? This is not, however, as plain as KJV Onlyists imply. God might well "sweep them away" with a wave of destruction. Such a phrase would make equal sense in English. To be sure whether a besom is a broom, a wave, or something else entirely, the reader must set down their Bible and look up the word. Such is not undoable, but it makes reading the Bible a laborious process, especially when such words are relatively frequent. And this is one of the more favorable examples to the KJV onlyist. Many instances are not nearly as clear as this. Context alone is not enough to know what all the archaic words in the KJV mean.

Idiomatic Expressions and Abnormal Usage

What's more, it is not enough to merely know the common meanings of all the archaic words used in the KJV. It's not as simple as just learning a vocabulary list. Even knowing the definitions, old idioms and abnormal usage can sometimes be complicated. For example, in Jeremiah 10:6-7 we read:

"Forasmuch as there is none like unto thee, O Lord; thou art great, and thy name is great in might. Who would not fear thee, O King of nations? for to thee doth it appertain: forasmuch as among all the wise men of the nations, and in all their kingdoms, there is none like unto thee."

Even if we know that "appertain" means "related to" or "pertaining to," it is still not altogether clear what Jeremiah means by "to thee doth it appertain," in this context. To thee does what appertain exactly? God is great, there is none like Him, and people should fear Him. That much is quite plain. But then he justifies this by saying "for to thee doth it appertain." And so we begin scouring the previous verses to see what it is that relates or pertains to God that explains this, but to no avail. This is because, even knowing the definition, we are unaware that this is actually an old idiom which means "for you this is appropriate," or "this is what you deserve." That is not at all the normal meaning of the word, but this expression allowed an abnormal range of meaning, as idioms tend to do. This is why modern translations render the same phrase:

"Indeed it is your due," (Jeremiah 10:6-7, NASB and MEV).

"This is your due," (Jeremiah 10:6-7, ESV and NIV).

"This is your rightful due," (Jeremiah 10:6-7, NKJV).

"It is what you deserve," (Jeremiah 10:6-7, CSB).

Similarly, the word "bestead" meant "placed or situated," but is never used in that plain sense in the KJV. It is used only within the idiom "hardly bestead" (see Isaiah 8:21) which means "badly treated; greatly distressed; in hardship." We likewise may know that the word "bray" means to "cry out." We still use it today in referring to certain animal noises, like the "bray" of a donkey. Yet, what does the proverb mean:

"Though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him," (Proverbs 27:22).

To "bray" a fool, in this context, is an idiom. It is a figure of speech now strange to our ears which meant "to pound, beat, grind, or crush." The mere definition of the word does not clarify an idiomatic expression like this. To take yet another such example, even today the word "bunches" refers to clusters or, by extension, a large quantity. The KJV sometimes uses the word plainly, such as when it refers to "bunches of raisins," (1 Chronicles 12:40). However, when it refers to "bunches of camels" (Isaiah 30:6), it is not referring to clusters or even large numbers of camels. It is an old idiom for the humps on the camels. The humps on camels backs were called their "bunches." Again, a mere definition of the word actually misleads us because we don't recognize archaic figures of speech.

When we see the phrase "fetched a compass," (Joshua 15:3), we will not discover that it meant "to turn about or go around" simply by looking up the words "fetched" and "compass." The phrase "odd number" (Numbers 3:48), did not mean what "odd number" means today. It meant excess, extra, or those above and beyond. "Every several," (2 Chronicles 11:12, 28:25, 31:19, Revelation 21:21)1 meant "each one separately or individually." Today, we would say "every single." The phrase "hard by" (Leviticus 3:9, 1 Kings 21:1, 1 Chronicles 19:4) means "beside" or "next to." We know both the words but still can't deduce the expression. Mere definitions of words don't clarify archaic usage or outdated figures of speech. 

Sometimes archaic words and idioms combine to make especially challenging phrases. For example, when we read of Ruth that "her hap was to light on" (Ruth 2:3), the meaning is quite unclear. We not only need to know that one's "hap" meant one's "luck, lot, or circumstance" (it is the archaic root of the word "happen.").  We must also know that to "light on" meant to come upon. Thus, altogether, "her hap was to light on" meant "she happened to come to" or "it was her fortune to arrive at." To catch that on our own, we would not only have to look up the old meaning of "hap," we would also have to discover what was meant by the phrase "light on," which cannot be discovered simply by looking up the words "light" and "on." Numerous other such examples could be offered, but these should be sufficient to show that the archaisms in the KJV go beyond merely a list of outdated words. Many phrases and figures of speech that contain idiomatic word usages can make a dictionary insufficient and render even familiar words challenging.  

Archaic Words in the KJV

The issue, then, is not merely that the KJV has some archaic words. All translations have at least a few rare or unfamiliar words. The issue is that the KJV has numerous and unnecessary archaic words and phrases which create an additional hurdle for the modern reader that simply need not be. For further examples of this, see our chart HERE

  • 1. Different but related phrases also occur in places like Matthew 25:15 and 1 Corinthians 12:11