How Shakespeare Added to Our Language

Welcome to Amazing Words Wednesday, the day we enter the labyrinth of language and see what we can find.

William Shakespeare portrait
Public domain, Wikimedia Commons

Let’s talk about “The Bard”–that is, William Shakespeare.

How many people can say that they coined phrases that will still be in use over 400 years after they introduced them?  Only a handful, I would think.  But William Shakespeare is to credit, or blame, for numerous phrases and proverbs in our English language.  Here are just a few:

  • Eaten out of house and home (Henry V, Part 2)
  • Fair play (The Tempest)
  • Foul play (Love’s Labours Lost)
  • Good riddance (Troilus and Cressida)
  • Hair stand on end (Hamlet)
  • Heart’s content (Henry VI and The Merchant of Venice)
  • In a pickle (The Tempest)
  • Jealousy is the green-eyed monster (Othello)
  • Love is blind (Merchant of Venice)
  • One fell swoop (Macbeth) (by the way, fell = savage or cruel like felon)
  • Pound of flesh (The Merchant of Venice)
  • Salad days (Antony and Cleopatra)
  • Send packing (I Henry IV)
  • The short and the long of it (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
  • Though this be madness, yet there is method in it (“There’s a method to my madness”) (Hamlet)
  • ‘Tis high time (The Comedy of Errors)
  • Wear my heart upon my sleeve (Othello)
  • What the dickens (The Merry Wives of Windsor) (dickens = hell)
  • Wild-goose chase (Romeo and Juliet)

Good Ol’ Bill popularized some other sayings that weren’t his own, such as “It’s Greek to me” (Julius Caesar) and “All’s well that ends well” (All’s Well that Ends Well).

It’s unbelievable how much influence Shakespeare has had on our commonly used phrases!  I tried to think of another source with such an impact on English.  The only book that rivals The Complete Works of Shakespeare for infusing words and phrases into the English language is the Bible–which is actually a collection of 66 written by 40 authors.

Why have Shakespeare’s words become so popular in our society?  How is it that a 16th/17th century poet and playwright still exerts so much sway over our language today? Will any other author ever have such an impact?

What Shakespearean phrases do you most like? Do you have others to add to my list?


Note: This post is an update of a previous one run in 2011.

14 thoughts on “How Shakespeare Added to Our Language

  1. The high school textbook I used to teach Romeo and Juliet posited the main reason for Shakespeare’s continuing popularity is that he wrote about real people, that is, people from all walks of life, but also complete people (as in not caricatures) dealing with problems that, while shown in a certain context, are really universal in nature. Every Shakespeare play is a study in human nature, and that is why they still speak to us today. His mastery of language also helps. It’s not everyone who can write prose and dialogue in the form of poetry and still make it entertaining.

    My favourite collection of Shakespeare quotes is the essay by Bernard Levin. Here’s a link to it, though you have included several of them:

    I also read somewhere that he was the first person to use the word “assassinate”.

  2. I use several of these like, “one feel swoop” which I never knew had ANYTHING to do with a felon (thank you for that), and “it’s high time”. I didn’t know most of these were from Bill. This was a great learning experience for me. Thanks.

  3. Love your posts, Julie; however, you missed Hamlet’s “Methinks that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark” – usually shortened to “Something rotten in Denmark.”

    1. Doth the gentleman protest too much? 😉

      I haven’t heard “rotten in Denmark” in a long time, but it’s definitely a phrase from Shakespeare still used. Thanks, David!

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