As if all of the words Shakespeare invented were not enough, he also put common words together to make up phrases new to the English language. Whilst most people in the English speaking world are aware of at least a handful of famous Shakespeare quotes – phrases like “to be or not to be” and “et tu, Brute?“, what’s less well known is the number of phrases in common usage today that Shakespeare first coined. Phrases such as “pure as the driven snow“, “wild goose chase”, “break the ice” and “cruel to be kind” are example of lines that first appeared in a Shakespeare play. See our list below of common phrases used today that come from phrases Shakespeare invented:
- all that glitters isn’t gold
- be all and end all
- break the ice
- breathe one’s last
- brevity is the soul of wit
- catch a cold
- clothes make the man
- disgraceful conduct
- dog will have his day
- eat out of house and home
- fair play
- flaming youth
- foregone conclusion
- frailty, thy name is woman
- give the devil his due
- green eyed monster
- heart of gold
- it smells to heaven
- it’s Greek to me
- live long day
- method in his madness
- mind’s eye
- ministering angel
- more sinned against than sinning
- naked truth
- neither a borrower nor a lender be
- one fell swoop
- pitched battle
- primrose path
- strange bedfellows
- the course of true love never did run smooth
- the lady doth protest too much
- the milk of human kindness
- to thine own self be true
- too much of a good thing
- towering passion
- wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve
- witching time of the night
The phrase all that glisters is not gold warns us not to be fooled by people or things that look good – because they might not be as good as they look on the surface!
Well that car looks fantastic, but all that glitters is not gold. Check the engine before you buy it.
In modern English, the word glisters is often changed to glistens or glitters.
The phrase I’ll send him packing was in common use in Shakespeare’s day. It means the same today as it did back then: I really don’t want this person around me, so I’ll send them away.
I’ve no patience when people try to sell me things at the door. I usually send them packing.
It’s also used in sport, to talk about beating an opponent.
This is our chance to do it and we should send them packing with their tails between their legs.
The phrase as dead as a doornail was in common use in Shakespeare’s day. It means the same today as it did back then: Dead. Very dead. Totally dead.
Old Marley was as as dead as a doornail. (Charles Dickens)
These days we can use as dead as a doornail for electrical gadgets that aren’t working.
Oh no – I forgot to charge my phone. It’s as dead as a doornail.
Language is a wonderful thing. We often choose our words carefully, depending on the occasion. But most of the time we are in informal situations, with our friends, classmates, colleagues and so on and then we go onto auto-pilot and our language just flows. Have you thought about the impossibility of speaking English without using metaphors? It’s impossible. Even just saying ‘I’m freezing’, or ‘I died laughing’, or ‘I see what you’re getting at’ – the list can go on forever – we are using the richness of poetic English in everything we say. But even more, we can’t get through a day without quoting Shakespeare. And we’re not even thinking about it.
There is a poster used in many English literature classrooms in England that shows a bit of that. It was devised by a famous English journalist, Bernard Levin, published in The Times newspaper some years ago, and this is it:
If you cannot understand my argument and declare it’s Greek to me, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare. If you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied – a tower of strength – hoodwinked or been in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows – made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play – slept not one wink – stood on ceremony – danced attendance on your lord and master – laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift – cold comfort, or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days, or lived in a fool’s paradise, why, be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a foregone conclusion that you are as good luck would have it, quoting Shakespeare. If you think it is high time, and that that is the long and the short of it, if you believe that the game is up, and that the truth will out, even if involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low – till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge at one fell swoop – without rhyme or reason, then to give the devil his due if the truth were known for surely you have a tongue in your head, you are quoting Shakespeare. Even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a doornail, if you think I am an eyesore – a laughing stock – the devil incarnate – a stony-hearted villain – bloody-minded, or a blinking idiot, then by jove – o lord– tut, tut! – For goodness sake – what the dickens! – but me no buts – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.
How’s that for an example of the many phrases Shakespeare introduced to the English language – and the world?!
Did you know that you talk Shakespeare’s language every day? Even if you had never heard of him, which is unlikely, you would use phrases coined by him in most conversations you have with friends or family.
Let’s take two friends having a conversation. One is very sad as she’s just broken up with her boyfriend. The conversation might go something like this:
‘He just left: all of a sudden. Without rhyme or reason.’
‘Well, good riddance, I say.’
‘I know. I was living in a fool’s paradise.’
‘The world’s your oyster now.’
‘But he’s made a laughing stock of me.’
‘I say again, good riddance. He was eating you out of house and home, for one thing. You should have sent him packing long ago.’
‘Just gone: in the twinkling of an eye.’
‘Well, don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. He was enough to set one’s teeth on edge.’
‘Thanks. You’re a tower of strength. A heart of gold.’
‘You really are a sorry sight.’
‘I know, I haven’t slept a wink.’
‘What did you see in him? It’s Greek to me.’
‘Well, you know. Love is blind.’
‘Where is he now?’
‘I don’t know. He’s vanished into thin air.’
That may be everyday language, but the incredible thing is that almost all the phrases were introduced to the English language by Shakespeare.