12 Phrases in use today attributable to William Shakespeare


12 Phrases in use today attributable to William Shakespeare

Lynne North's Blog


Many of us are huge fans of William Shakespeare, whilst others say his work is too outdated, much too difficult to read or understand, and best left in the past. Whatever your opinion about the Great Bard, you might be surprised to know that many phrases we use as part of our everyday life are attributable to the great man himself!

Would you like to ‘send me packing’ for suggesting such nonsense? Do you think I’m trying to make you a ‘laughing stock’, and that it ‘is high time’ you bid me ‘good riddance’ because ‘the truth will out’ and my ‘game is up’? Well, sorry, because I’m ‘more sinned against than sinning’, and every phrase quoted in this paragraph, and many more, were coined by Shakespeare. Admittedly it is not always clear whether a phrase was already in use in Shakespeare's day or if he used it for the first time, but nevertheless his works provide us with the earliest examples of many. Shakespeare shared more phrases with us that are still in use today than any other writer throughout history.

Just a few of the most well known ones are provided here.

All that glitters is not gold

Shakespeare used this phrase in the Merchant of Venice in the following lines spoken by Morocco as he unlocks a golden casket:

‘All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:’

When we hear this phrase, we immediately think of being deceived by appearances. Quite often this involves objects we are looking to buy. On the outside they might look fantastic and a real bargain. The fact of the matter is though, will they break soon? Are they gilded to look better than they actually are? This can also apply to people. Salesmen and politicians come to mind! Does the confident and friendly smile show us the real person, or are they just trying to gain our approval for their own means? In a nutshell, beware of relying on appearances only. The eye does not necessarily see the truth of the situation based on just outward show.

The be all and end all

This phrase appears in Macbeth, the lines spoken by Macbeth himself when he is considering assassinating King Duncan of Scotland and taking the throne.

‘With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,’

When we see something as the be all and end all it is the only thing that matters to us. This might be something we wish to possess, or our deepest wish. It could be something we are determined to accomplish one way or another. Everything we have sought or done has ended in this most important situation. We need look no further, what we have found is all that matters. This is our ultimate goal and the thing we most want to achieve in life.

I will wear my heart upon my sleeve

We saw this phrase in Shakespeare’s Othello, spoken by Iago when he confesses to Roderigo that he only appears loyal to Othello.

‘But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.’

The reference is one we recognise from the old custom of chivalrous knights who tied a lady’s favour to their sleeve to reveal their true heart’s desire. It tells us to display our feelings openly, for all to see. We get nowhere if life by hiding the way we feel, hoping the other person picks up on the way they are affecting us, in a positive or negative way. We shouldn’t hide our true thoughts and emotions. Let others see us as we are and experience the results of their behaviour or actions.

Milk of human kindness

This is taken from Shakespeare's Macbeth, and spoken by Lady Macbeth when she regrets that her husband doesn't share her overwhelming ambition:

‘What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness’

In Lady Macbeth’s case her worries were that Macbeth cared too much about the feelings of others to fulfil his full potential. Today the phrase encourages us to show care, compassion and sympathy for others. If we behave in selfish or reckless ways our actions inevitably impact on more lives than just our own. We need to show kindness to other people, and be aware of their problems and upsets. The idea is to treat others as you would like to be treated. Kindness shown has a habit of coming back in our favour.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be

Shakespeare introduced us to this phrase in Hamlet. Old Lord Polonius gives advice to his hot-headed son Laertes, when he is ready to leave to be educated as a gentleman in Paris.

‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,’

These days we soon find out it can prove difficult to remain on good terms with someone who owes us something, or equally who we owe something to. When the debt is not willingly and quickly repaid it can make us wary of the person we have borrowed from or leant to. We might try to avoid them, or feel they are avoiding us so not to have to face the situation. The phrase advises us that it is better to swerve borrowing or lending so that we don’t find ourselves in such awkward situations.

Too much of a good thing

We see this phrase in Shakespeare’s As you like it, spoken by Rosalind in a play-acting scene with Orlando.

ROSALIND
Are you not good?
ORLANDO
I hope so.
ROSALIND
Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?

To us this means though we might enjoy some indulgences, useful things or pleasurable activity in our lives, too much of them can prove to be harmful or excessive. Excess in anything may do us unexpected and unnecessary harm. Overeating will make us fat and unhealthy; too much exercise might put a strain on our muscles and heart. Moderation in all things is advised. Indeed, if we indulge too much in something we really enjoy, it can become so commonplace that we don’t even truly appreciate it anymore!

Truth will out

This phrase is from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Launcelot, Shylock's servant, hates to work for his unpleasant master. He stands in front of Shylock’s home voicing his displeasure, then his blind father comes onto the scene and Launcelot proceeds to play a trick on him.

‘Well, old man, I will tell you news of
 your son: give me your blessing: truth will come
 to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man's son
 may, but at the length truth will out.’

We soon find that no matter how much we try to deceive, or hide the truth, it will eventually be known. By lying about anything we tend to dig ourselves deeper and deeper into trouble. We also have to possess a great memory in order to keep up the facade and not trip ourselves up in our story telling! No matter how well we achieve this, it is more than likely that the truth will be discovered eventually.

In stitches

This phrase came to us from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Maria follows up on her plan to play a prank on the uptight, lovesick Malvolio.

‘If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourself
into stitches, follow me.’

We use this phrase to emphasize how much we are laughing. To be in stitches shows we are laughing so much that it hurts. We have to struggle to control our laughter in any way. It takes over and makes our eyes water and our body shake. The funny event keeps coming back and setting us off again even if we are trying hard not to laugh. This is made even worse if we are somewhere we shouldn’t be laughing like a quiet public place. We have all been there! It refers to laughing so hard we feel a sharp pain like being pricked by a needle. .

Love is blind

This became quite a favourite line of Shakespeare, and appears in several of his plays, including Two Gentlemen of Verona, Henry V and this example spoken by Jessica in The Merchant of Venice as she is eloping with Lorenzo, disguised as a boy.

‘But love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit;’

Lovers cannot see each other’s weaknesses or shortcoming. When we love someone, we are blind to their faults. Strangely, research supports the idea that the blindness of love is not just a figure of speech. A research study in 2004 by University College London found that feelings of love suppressed the activity of the parts of the brain that control critical thought.

Wild goose chase

The first recorded use of this phrase is from Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s play about star-crossed lovers. The lines are spoken by Mercutio to Romeo.

‘Nay, if thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have
 done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of
 thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.
 Was I with you there for the goose?’

We use the phrase if we are speaking of an impractical or useless pursuit of something. We are striving on a hopeless enterprise or wasting time on an undertaking that is likely to prove fruitless. Quite often we are so blinkered by what we hope to achieve that it takes someone else to point this out to us. Apparently wild geese are very difficult to catch therefore our pointless undertakings are likened to chasing one!

Dead as a doornail

This phrase was in widespread use in England by the 16th Century, but was popularised by Shakespeare when he had the rebel leader Jack Cade in King Henry VI say these lines:

‘and if I do not leave you all as dead
as a doornail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.’

We use this phrase to refer to someone as dead as can be, completely devoid of life. Compare it to the Monty Python parrot! We also say this about lifeless objects that are no longer of any use.

The ‘doornail’ referred to is one of the heavy headed nails that studded large outer doors in the past for strength and decoration. The nails were hammered through then the protruding end bent over to secure it. The nail would be unusable again therefore ‘dead’. Alternatively the ‘doornail’ is the knob on with the knocker strikes. In the latter case, the door knob was so often knocked on the head it wouldn’t have much life left in it!

In a Pickle

This is one of my favourite phrases from Shakespeare. I tend to use it myself in my writing! Shakespeare was one of the first to use ‘in a pickle’, in The Tempest when Alonso and Trinculo are having a conversation.

ALONSO
‘How camest thou in this pickle?’

TRINCULO
‘I have been in such a pickle since I
saw you last that, I fear me, will never out of
my bones’

We say this to mean in a sorry plight or a state of disorder. We find ourselves in a quandary or some other difficult position. The 'in trouble' meaning of 'in a pickle' was an allusion to being as disoriented and mixed up as the stewed vegetables that made up the earliest pickles. I am sure we have all found ourselves in a pickle at various times throughout our lives...

So there we have it. We have a lot more to remember Shakespeare for than many of us might have realised!

Lynne North

Lynne North is the author of ‘Caution: Witch in Progress’, a children’s humorous fantasy published by Ghostly Publishing in 2013 and launched at Earl’s Court Book Fair, and ‘Zac’s Destiny’, a children’s Sword & Sorcery fantasy. Both are available on Kindle on Amazon worldwide.

To see more of Lynne North's work, click the link to her website or scroll down to the bottom of the page to view her member details
Visit Lynne North's Blog.

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William Shakespeare Folio used for our social media card



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Many of us are huge fans of William Shakespeare, whilst others say his work is too outdated, much too difficult to read or understand, and best left in the past. Whatever your opinion about the Great Bard, you might be...

Caution: Witch in Progress by Lynne North

Gertie Grimthorpe is born into a society of witches and grows up in Vile Vale, but there is something very wrong with her ... she is beautiful and couldn't be nasty if she tried.
When she finds out that she is to attend a private academy for magical children, Gertie hopes to find her witchy way in the world.
With a moat monster suffering from stomach ache, a shortsighted owl familiar, and mishaps galore, Gertie's adventures are hilarious and heartwarming.
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