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Popular Everyday English Expressions We Inherited from Shakespeare II

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Twitter: @farooqkperogi This week’s column is a sequel to last week’s . For readers who missed the first...

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

This week’s column is a sequel to last week’s. For readers who missed the first part, I pointed out that in April ( which is Shakespeare’s birth month) and May (the month that he died), it is usual to celebrate Shakespeare in literary and grammar circles by calling attention to the everyday English idioms, expressions, and turns of phrases we owe to his prodigious oeuvre. In what follows, I continue and extend what I started last week:

"An eye-sore." An eyesore is anything that violates our visual sensibilities; that is objectionably ugly. It was first used in Shakespeare’s play titled Taming of the Shrew. In Act III Scene 2 of the play, a character by the name of Baptista Minola uses the word this way: “Fie, doff this habit, shame to your estate/An eye-sore to our solemn festival!” The modern spelling of the word dispenses with the hyphen.

"Brave New World." This refers to a significant period in the history of a society. The expression came to us from Shakespeare's play The Tempest, which Shakespeare scholars say was written between 1610 and 1611. It appears in Act 5 scene 1 of the play: “How many goodly creatures are there here!/How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world/That has such people in ’t!”

"Breathe one's last." Most people use this expression as a euphemism for “die.” It was first used in Shakespeare’s Henry VI in the sentence, “Montague has breathed his last."
“Brevity is the soul of wit.” This is one of my favorite Shakespearean aphorisms. It often comes in handy when I teach news writing. It means good writing or speech should be concise and to the point. It’s often invoked to discourage long, laborious writing or speech. It first appeared in Shakespeare’s famous play, Hamlet, where a character, Polonius, says, “Since brevity is the soul of wit / And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief…”

“Cold comfort.” It means sympathy or encouraging that does little to mollify us, as in “he told me that time heals all wounds but that was cold comfort to me." Several scholars have persuasively argued that Shakespeare didn’t invent the expression; it had existed at least 200 years before he was born. Nevertheless, his use of the expression many times in several of his plays sure popularized it.

“Exceedingly well read.” The phrase explains itself: it means one who is highly educated. It was Shakespeare who first coined this turn of phrase in Henry IV Part 1 where the character Mortimer says, “In faith, he is a worthy gentleman/ Exceedingly well read, and profited/ In strange concealments, valiant as a lion/And as wondrous affable and as bountiful/ As mines of India.”

“Have blood on one’s hand.” We often say people have blood on their hands when they are responsible for a murder or grievous injury—either directly or indirectly. The phrase has origins in the play Macbeth, where Macbeth says, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather/The multitudinous seas incarnadine,/Making the green one red.” Shakespeare’s use of “blood” to symbolize guilt is metaphoric.

"Devil incarnate." This phrase will rank in the top 20 most popular Shakespearean expressions in use in modern English. It basically means what it says: devil in human form, and is used to describe an intolerably detestable person. Shakespeare used it in two of his plays: King Henry V (written in 1598) and Titus Andronicus (written in 1588). In King Henry V, it appears in the following sentence:  “Yes, that a' did; and said they were devils [sic] incarnate.” In Titus Andronicus, it appears in the following dialogue: “LUCIUS: O worthy Goth, this is the incarnate devil/That robb'd Andronicus of his good hand….”

"Into thin air." To disappear into thin air is to vanish without a trace. The phrase, which is now idiomatic, was first used in The Tempest this way: “As I foretold you, were all spirits and/Are melted into air, into thin air.”

"The game is up." We often say this to let people know that the secret, often unsavory, plot they had been hatching has been discovered and that they should discontinue it. In other words, it means we have seen through their trickery and that they should just give up now.  It was passed down to us from Shakespeare's Cymbeline (written in 1611) in this dialogue: “Euriphile, Thou wast their nurse; they took thee for their mother/And every day do honour to her grave:/Myself, Belarius, that am Morgan call'd,/They take for natural father/The game is up.” It is also rendered as “the jig is up” in modern English.

"Strange bedfellows." Strange bedfellows are temporary associates who ordinarily have no reason to relate to each other because of their vast differences. The phrase is mostly used in contemporary English to describe incongruous, often opportunistic, political alignments. It was first used in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (2:2) this way: “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”

"Household words." We say someone or something is a household word when they are exceedingly popular. These days, the phrase is also rendered as “household name.” The first known usage of “household words” in the English language appeared in Shakespeare’s Henry V, IV.3.52: “Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot [sic]/But he'll remember with advantages/What feats he did that day: then shall our names/Familiar in his mouth as household words.”
“One fell swoop.” This is a favorite phrase in Nigerian journalese. It means “suddenly; in a single action,” as in, “After taking over power, the military dissolved all democratic institutions in one fell swoop.” It isn’t certain if Shakespeare neologized it or merely gave it currency, but the phrase came to us from Macbeth (1605) from the following dialogue: “All my pretty ones?/ Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?/
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam/At one fell swoop?”

"Foregone conclusion." A foregone conclusion is something that is certain to happen.  It was first used in Othello (1604): “But this denoted a foregone conclusion:/ 'Tis a shrewd doubt, though it be but a dream.”

“Wear my heart upon my sleeve.” This means to openly show one’s emotions. The origin of the expression is often traced to Shakespeare’s Othello where it appears in the following dialogue: “The native act and figure of my heart/In compliment extern, 'tis not long after/But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve/For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.”

“In my heart of hearts.” It means my deepest feelings; the core of my emotions. Shakespeare coined the expression in Act 3, scene 2 of Hamlet, where it appears as “heart of heart,” not the modern variant we are used to: “Give me that man/That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him/In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart/As I do thee.”

“Give the devil his due.” It means we should acknowledge the good qualities in even otherwise objectionable people. It’s also used to mean repay people you owe, however bad they may be. It was popularized from Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 1, in the following dialogue:

“Constable: I will cap that proverb with 'There is flattery in friendship.'
Orleans: And I will take up that with 'Give the devil his due.'”

 “Kill with kindness.” It means to overwhelm someone with compassion and benevolence. Shakespeare first used the expression in The Taming of the Shrew, Act 4 scene 1: “And if she chance to nod I’ll rail and brawl/And with the clamor keep her still awake/This is a way to kill a wife with kindness/And thus I’ll curb her mad and headstrong humor.”

There will be no end to this series if I choose to highlight the Shakespearean roots of the many conversational phrases we use today. But I will leave you with these additional expressions: "The better part of valour is discretion" - Henry IV, Part 1, V.4.118-119; "The primrose path" - Hamlet, I.3.50; "The be-all and the end-all" - Macbeth, I.5.16; "Stood on ceremonies" - Julius Caesar, II.2.13; "Ay, there's the rub" - Hamlet, I.5.27; "Pomp and circumstance" - Othello, III.3.351; “Conscience does make cowards of us all”—Hamlet Act 3 scene 1; “Play fast and loose”—King Philip; “Full circle”; “Heart of gold”; “Set my teeth on edge”; “Come what may.”


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