25 MARCH 1995, Page 17

Mind your language

SABBATICALS SEEM to be all the rage these days. The disappearing comedian, Stephen Fry, said he needed one; the former Treasurer of the Con- servative Party, Lord McAlpine, said they needed one from government.

The concept is found in the Bible (Exodus xxiii 10): 'And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and shalt gather in the fruits thereof: But the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie still; that the poor of thy people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat.'

Deuteronomy (xv 1-11) developed the idea, providing for a forgiveness of debt every seven years: 'Every creditor that lendeth ought unto his neighbour shall release it.' The book warns against get- ting round the release by refusing to lend just before the seventh year comes around, lest 'thine eye be evil against thy poor brother, and thou givest him nought; and he cry to the LORD against thee, and it be sin unto thee'.

Until recently, university lecturers and even journalists were given sabbati- cal leave every few years, to travel or write some worthy work. The use of sab- batical in such a loose sense dates only from the 19th century.

A far more exciting idea two centuries before had been that of a sabbatical mil- lenary: the last of seven thousands of years which were supposed to form the destined term of the world's existence, the seventh of which would be like the millennium, the golden age when Christ would rule the world. This idea attract- ed the Fifth Monarchy Men, who were active among the Puritans and mingled with the Levellers, Diggers, Muggletoni- aris and suchlike of the English Civil Wars. Since many people believed the world had been created about 6,000 years before, this was a question of some interest.

The Calvinist Archbishop James Ussher (who died in 1656) was one of the most persuasive scholars of his age and came to the conclusion that the world was created in 4004BC. This chronology appeared in the margins of many King James Bibles after his time. It gives us perhaps another nine years before we get the sabbatical to end all sabbaticals.

Dot Wordsworth