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Popular Everyday English Expressions We Inherited from Shakespeare (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D., Twitter: @farooqkperogi Every April and May, people around the English-speaking world celebrate William...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.,
Twitter: @farooqkperogi

Every April and May, people around the English-speaking world celebrate William Shakespeare, reputed to be “the greatest writer in the English language.” It’s because April is Shakespeare’s birth month. Although it is not known what day he was born in April 1564, it is generally assumed that he was born on April 23. What is certain, though, is that he died on May 3, 1616.

To celebrate his life and death, Shakespeare aficionados like to remind English speakers of the everyday expressions we owe to him. I have put together a few of these expressions. I found some from Shakespeare resources online and I know some from my own reading of Shakespeare’s works.

Nevertheless, as many experts have pointed out—and as you will find out below—Shakespeare didn’t necessarily invent all the words and expressions he is often given credit for. Scholars say he merely popularized the vocabularies and expressions that were dominant in his time. Even so, he deserves admiration for his unmatched artistry with words and for enriching the language that has for all practical purposes become the world’s lingua franca.  See below some common expressions you probably didn’t know came from Shakespeare:

“There's method in his madness.” We say there is method in (or to) someone’s madness when we want to convey the sense that there is a reason for their strange, inexplicable behavior or decision. The expression was first used in print in Shakespeare’s Hamlet where Polonius says, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.” Modern usage shortened the expression to what it is now.

"Pound of flesh." A pound of flesh is understood as harsh vengeance. The expression was first used in The Merchant of Venice.

"[Fight] fire with fire." The phrase means to use the same tactics and strategies your opponent is using to fight you. If the opponent uses violence use violence, too. If he uses treachery, use treachery, too. Shakespeare first used this expression in his 1623 play titled King John. Nigeria’s former Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun, distorted this Shakespearean expression to “fire for fire” in his infamous “Operation Fire for Fire” campaign.

"Long and short of it." This everyday expression, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “the sum total, substance, upshot” of something, owes etymological debts to Shakespeare, although he used it as “the short and long of it.” Over the years, we changed the structure of the expression to “long and short of it.”

He used the expression at least four times in The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Merchant of Venice. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, says the expression antedated Shakespeare’s work by at least 100 years. It cited a written source where the expression appears as, “Thys ys the schorte and longe.” 

“Knock, Knock, who's there?” We all say this to indicate the sound created when one knocks on the door. All kinds of jokes are also created around the expression. It first appeared in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

"It is (all) Greek to me." We say this to mean something doesn’t make sense to us; to mean that something is unintelligible. The expression was popularized by Shakespeare in Julius Ceasar where it appears in the following line: “Those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.” 

But UK linguist Michael Quinion says Elizabethan playwright Thomas Dekker had used the expression a year earlier than Shakespeare in this sentence: “I’ll be sworn he knows not so much as one character of the tongue. Why, then it’s Greek to him.” But what is undeniable is that the expression came to us via Shakespeare, not Dekker.

"Much ado about nothing." It means needlessly excessive fuss over insignificant or inconsequential things. It is derived from the title of Shakespeare’s comedic play, Much Ado About Nothing, although historical linguists have said the expression was in common usage during Shakespeare’s time. So, although he popularized it, he didn’t coin it.

"For goodness' sake." This interjectory expression to show frustration and anger came to us from Shakespeare’s Henry The Eighth Prologue, 23–25 and Henry The Eighth Act 3, scene 1, 159–161.

"Naked truth." This expression for the unvarnished truth was popularized by
Shakespeare’s Love's Labour's Lost, a play thought be written in the 1590s.

"Laughing stock." When someone is called a laughing stock, it means they are the object of scorn. The expression has origins in Shakespeare's play The Merry Wives of Windsor, said to be written in 1602.

“Not slept a wink.” We say this to mean we haven’t slept at all. Although linguists have attested this expression in Middle English (that is, English spoken from about 1100 to 1450), it was popularized by Shakespeare's use of the expression in Cymbeline, written in 1611, where he wrote: "O gracious lady/ Since I received command to do this business/I have not slept one wink.”

"Good Riddance." As Cambridge Dictionary points out, we say this when we “are pleased that a bad or unwanted thing or person, or something of poor quality, has gone.” It is now usual to add “to bad rubbish” to the expression. Its roots are traceable to Shakespeare's 1609 play titled Troilus and Cressida.

“As good luck would have it.” This is a popular turn of phrase in everyday English, which we now render as “as luck would have it.” We use it to mean “fortunately.” The expression was first used in Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor, published in 1600. It appeared in these lines: “You shall hear. As good luck would have it, comes in one Mistress Page; gives intelligence of Ford's approach; and, in her invention and Ford's wife's distraction, they conveyed me into a buck-basket.”

"Love is blind." This popular expression that means our tender emotions for the person we deeply care about can cause us to ignore their faults was first used in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

"Wild goose chase." To go on a wild goose chase is to embark on a quixotic, unrealistic adventure. The expression was first used in, or at least popularized by, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

"Bated breath." When we wait with bated breath it means we anticipate something with nervous anxiety. The expression first appeared in The Merchant of Venice.

"Break the ice." It means to engage in small talk or informal activity to make people comfortable especially when one is meeting them for the first time. It first appeared in Shakespeare’s play titled The Taming of the Shrew.

"Green-eyed monster." This expression is synonymous with jealousy. During Shakespeare’s time, the color green symbolized sickness. No one contests the fact that the expression “green-eyed monster” as a lexical stand-in for jealousy was invented by Shakespeare in Othello, first published in 1603.

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