William Shakespeare gave the world many gifts in his writing, and some of them have stuck over the centuries. Many expressions in the English language trace their first appearance in the works of Shakespeare, but people tend to think of his writing as very “fancy”, and don’t associate everyday words with classic English.
Have a look – you just might be surprised to see that you quote Shakespeare every day without even knowing it!
10. A Fool’s Paradise
Meaning a state of happiness based on false hope, Shakespeare used the expression in Romeo and Juliet, 1592.
9. In A Pickle
The term, meaning to be in a quandary or difficult position, was coined by Shakespeare in in The Tempest, 1610. The earliest pickles were spicy sauces made to accompany meat dishes. Later, in the 16th century, the name pickle was also given to a mixture of spiced, salted vinegar that was used as a preservative. 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 pickles.
8. “Short shrift”
In the play Richard III, the expression was used in its original form, which described the small space of time between condemnation and execution. A shrift is a penance (a prescribed penalty) imposed by a priest in a confession in order to provide absolution, often when the confessor was near to death. In the 17th century, criminals were sent to the scaffold immediately after sentencing and only had time for a ‘short shrift’ before being hanged.
Today the term is still in use, but meaning more to make short work of – to give little consideration to. Shakespeare was the first to write it down, in Richard III, 1594. It doesn’t appear again in print until 1814, Scott’s Lord of the Isles.
7. “”Salad days”
This expression was first used by Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra in 1606, speaking of her salad days when she was green in judgment.
The phrase ‘salad days’ lay dormant for two hundred years or more but became used widely in the 19th century. For example, this citation from the Oregon newspaper The Morning Oregonian, June 1862: “What fools men are in their salad days.” It is commonly used today to speak of someone who is young and inexperienced.
6. “Green-eyed monster”
Emotions have often been matched with colour. Green is a colour associated with sickness, possibly because people’s skin takes on a slightly yellow/green tinge when they are seriously ill. Green is also the colour of many unripe foods that cause stomach pains. The phrase was used by, and possibly coined by, Shakespeare to denote jealousy, in The Merchant of Venice, 1596
Jealousy was the green-eyed monster 400 years ago when Iago warned of it in Othello. In Othello, 1604, Shakespeare also alludes to cats as green-eyed monsters in the way that they play with mice before killing them. It is still quite common in modern times to hear this phrase used in common conversation to describe the force of jealousy.
5. “Bated breath”
Which is it – bated or baited? We have baited hooks and baited traps, but bated – what’s that? Bated doesn’t even seem to be a real word, where else do you hear it? Having said that, ‘baited breath’ makes little sense either. How can breath be baited? With worms? There seems little guidance in contemporary texts. Search in Google and you’ll find about the same number of hits for ‘baited breath’ as ‘bated breath’. Bated is a shortened form of abated (meaning – to bring down, lower or depress). ‘Abated breath’ makes perfect sense and that’s where the phrase comes from.
First said by Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in 1596, it was and still is used to describe a feeling of great suspense or excitement, when you even breath slower.
4. “The naked truth”
This expression was first heard in Love’s Labours Lost, when Don Adriano de Armado used the play on words to reveal that he was not wearing a shirt under his clothes. This was the unadorned, or naked, truth.
Another theory of the origin of this expression comes from a fable in which Truth and Falsehood went bathing, Falsehood then dressed in Truth’s clothes, and Truth, refusing to take another’s clothes, went naked. There is a painting by Botticelli called Calumny, where Truth, stands on the left, naked and pointing to heaven. Other figures include Hatred, Calumny, Ignorance and the victim, an innocent young man, also nearly naked.
This painting was inspired by the written description of a, now lost, painting by an artist called Apelles who had been slandered. Botticelli precedes Shakespeare by over a hundred years and Apelles lived and worked sometime after 350BC.
Truth is, we may never know for sure…
3. “Fair play”
“Fair play” is used twice in King John: Act 5, scene 1, 65-69, and Act 5, scene 2, 118-119, by “Bastard,” Philip Faulconbridge, the illegitimate son of Richard the Lion-Hearted. “In the first instance, he uses the phrase sarcastically, to denote cowardly courtesy.” “In the second instance, however, Faulconbridge stands upon ‘fair play,’ seeking audience with the Pope’s legate as courtesy and chivalry demand. Even here, though, there is some sarcasm in the bastard, because his mission is to reject the pact with the Pope and the capitulation to France. ‘Fair play’ is merely customary courtesy, a show of civility to those one detests to the point of blood shed. What has become for us a mark of civility – playing by the rules – is still for Faulconbridge an ambivalent quality, a not always necessary evil.”
2. “Strange bedfellows”
In The Tempest, Caliban and Trinculo take shelter from a storm together, leading to the remark that “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows”. The expression, still commonly used today, refers to unusual or unlikely alliances and partnerships
1. “All that glitters is not gold”
This expression is a warning that flashy stuff� is not always as precious as it may seem. The original form of this phrase was ‘all that glisters is not gold’. The ‘glitters’ version of the phrase long ago superseded the original and is now almost universally used.
Shakespeare is the best-known writer to have expressed this idea. The original Shakespeare editions of The Merchant of Venice, 1596, have the line as ‘all that glisters is not gold’. ‘Glister’ is usually replaced by ‘glitter’ in renditions of the play.