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Excerpt: 'Begat'

Cover of 'Begat'

Chapter 4

My brother's keeper

As the Genesis narrative unfolds, there are long passages where linguistically influential phrases are conspicuous by their absence, then a familiar usage suddenly jumps out at you. Here's an example, in Chapter 4, where we find the story of Cain and Abel.

4:1 And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD. 4:2 And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. 4:3 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. 4:4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: 4:5 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. 4:6 And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? 4:7 If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. 4:8 And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. 4:9 And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?

There it is. One of those rare phrasings which is so appealing that it is found in virtually every translation (only Wycliffe differs: whether I am the keeper of my brother). It's succinct, direct, and rhythmically neat, using the 'te-tum' iambic beat which was the metrical driving force of so much of the dramatic poetry of the early 1600s. The rhythm is far superior to what we find in the occasional alternative version, such as Wycliffe's whether I am the keeper of my brother? And as its meaning readily relates to a host of everyday domestic circumstances, it probably transferred into daily use very quickly.

Today it has come to be used, either with those exact words or with some playful manipulation, extraordinarily often. Brother's keeper, with or without the my, has named over a dozen episodes in television series, such as Knight Rider (No 203), Law and Order (No 250), ER (No 85), and Tales from the Crypt (No 23). It was actually chosen as the first (pilot) episode of Miami Vice. A whole US sitcom with this name was aired in 1998–9 on ABC: the storyline was a single father who had to raise his son at the same time as keeping his brother out of trouble.

(My) brother's keeper has been used in this way for decades. We find it in an episode of The Brady Bunch (No 103); that was back in 1973. Even further back, it was the title of a 1948 film starring Jack Warner. At least another three films have been called My Brother's Keeper, not counting a documentary about a controversial death which took place in a family of four elderly brothers. The phrase doesn't seem to lose its freshness, as the years go by. I expect it will be used again next year -- and the year after.

Moving on from films, it's the title of two songs, and two record albums (one by singer and songwriter Rich Mullins; the other by US R&B group the Neville Brothers). It's the name of a popular piece of software for organizing information about your family history. It's the title of several books, including two My brother's keeper novels, a Star Trek spin-off, and a few nonfictional accounts of family relationships -- one of which was Dakin Williams' biogra­phy of his famous brother called His Brother's Keeper: the life and murder of Tennessee Williams. Perhaps as far as you can get from traditional biblical connotations, an American hardcore punk rock band called itself Brother's Keeper. And an Afro-German anti-racism group bringing together hip-hop, reggae, and soul musicians was called the Brothers Keepers. They were all men. A female version of the group called itself the Sisters Keepers.

In these last examples, we can see the way the expression has begun to be modified. The pronoun change from my to his is a natural kind of extension, so it's not surprising to find writers exploiting all the other pronoun options available in English. There's a Walt Disney cartoon called Her brother's keeper. An organization which offers support to persons with HIV/AIDS is called Our Brothers' Keepers Foundation. An article on traffic congestion in a US city is headed Their Brother's Keeper. Many websites take up the implied challenge, asking their readers to be Your brother's keeper. Even an old pronoun can be resuscitated: an article on mutual aid for low-cost health insurance in the USA is headed Thy brother's keeper. It's one of around 800 instances of this variant found on Google in 2009. I never expected the figure to be so high.

The gender change is frequently implemented. Several books and films are called My sister's keeper. Quite a few websites go out of their way to avoid any hint of sexism. Am I my brother and sister's keeper? asks one. And a report in the New York Daily News of Barack Obama's Christmas Day message in 2008 was headed Be your brother's keeper, President-elect Obama urges. In fact his urging was not so restricted. What he actually said was: 'Now, more than ever, we must rededicate ourselves to the notion that we share a common destiny as Americans -- that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper.'

If brother can become sister, then we might expect to see the expression being used for other relatives. And so it proves to be. Any story of someone who has had to look after an ageing mother or father can motivate such usages as My parents' keeper. The nuance is especially poignant if one or both of them is suffering from a disease such as Alzheimer's. Sometimes the title makes the nature of the problem explicit: one website begins: Am I my Asperger brother's keeper? Often it provides a note of intrigue: a book appeared in 1985 called My mother's keeper. Its author, B. D. Hyman, was the daughter of film-star Bette Davis.

Reprinted with permission from Begat by David Crystal.  Published by Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright 2010 Oxford University Press

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David Crystal