The Origin of Words and Phrases: Shakespeare

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Podcast Transcript

Of all the billions of people who have spoken English, one person has probably impacted the language more than any other. 

The person who is considered the greatest playwright in the language is also responsible for adding more words and phrases than anyone else.

His impact on the language is due not only to his skill and output as a writer but also to the fact that he wrote his works when modern English was being created.

Learn more about the word and phrases which came to us from William Shakespeare on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’m sure that most of you are at least aware of who William Shakespeare is. Even if you haven’t actually read any of the works of Shakespeare or attended any of his plays, you know that he was a significant figure in the history of English literature. 

What you probably don’t know is just how many of the words and phrases that you use every day were invented by Shakespeare.

It is estimated that there are over 1,700 words that Shakespeare introduced to the English language. Many of them consist of turning nouns into verbs, verbs into adjectives, putting two old words together to make a new one, adding new suffixes and prefixes, and just inventing wholly new words out of nothing. 

In addition to new words, Shakespeare also created many of the phrases and saying that we use. 

Most people are totally unaware that every day they are quoting Shakespeare.

I should also note that it is entirely possible that Shakespeare did not create some of these words and phrases, but he simply was the first one to put them into writing. They could have been used in everyday language, but just not written down. 

Even if that is the case, Shakespeare still should get credit as the person who popularized and first used the words in print. 

With that, let’s start with one of the phrases he popularized, which I’ve had a request from listeners to cover in an episode: It’s Greek To Me.

The idiom “it’s Greek to me” first appears in the play Julius Caesar in 1599. In it, Cassius is talking to Casca about someone speaking Greek and Casca says, “Nay, an I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you i’ the face again: but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.”

This actually has origins in a Latin phrase, Graecum est; non potest legi, which roughly translates to “it is in Greek, so I don’t understand it.”  The Latin version originated with medieval scribes who were copying Latin texts and didn’t know Greek. 

What is interesting is that most languages have some sort of similar phrase for comparing something unintelligible to another language. The most common language which is refered to isn’t Greek, it’s actually Chinese.  In many cases, it is just a neighboring country that speaks a very different language.

If something or someone disappears, we say it ‘vanished into thin air.’ This has its origin in several Shakespeare plays where he comes very close to saying it.

In Othello, which was published in 1604, he says, “Then put up your pipes in your bag, for I’ll away. Go; vanish into air; away!”

So, here he says, ‘vanish into air.’

Then in The Tempest in 1610, he says, “These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air.”

Here is used the term “thin air,” which was the first time it was used. 

Later, people trying to quote Shakespeare just sort of melded the two together to make them “vanish into thin air.”

If someone sets you on a futile quest, it is often said that you have been sent on a “Wild-goose chase.”

This first appeared in the play Romeo and Juliet in 1592. In the character, Mercutio says, “Nay, if thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.”

Soon after Shakespeare wrote this, the term “wild goose chase” took on a very different meaning. It was a term used in horse racing to describe horses that ran at an equal distance from each other, just like geese flying in a flock. 

The horse racing meaning of the term eventually fell into disuse, and the modern meaning remained.

If you find yourself in a difficult situation, you can say that you find yourself “in a pickle.”

The first use of “in a pickle” came from the aforementioned play The Tempest. 

In it, King Alonso, his butler Stephano and his jester, Trinculo, are washed up on an island, along with a barrel of wine. Trinculo and Stephano are drunk when they encounter the king. 

The king says ‘Trinculo is reeling ripe. Where should they find this grand liquor that hath gilded ’em?’ He asks Trinculo, ‘How came’st thou in this pickle?’ Trinculo replies: ‘I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last…”

In the play, “in a pickle” refers to being drunk but also being in the situation of being drunk.  Today, we still might say that someone is ‘pickled’ if they are inebriated. 

Shakespeare may have gotten the idiom from Dutch which has a phrase that roughly means “sit in the pickle,” which would mean sitting in a brine solution used to make pickles. 

Shakespeare’s dual use of pickled as in drunk and in a pickle as in a difficult situation has bifurcated, and they mean different things today. However, if you should find yourself on a deserted island with a barrel of wine, you might very well be able to use both meanings as well.

If someone is attracted to someone and overlooks flaws and sometimes serious issues, it can be said that “love is blind.”

In The Merchant of Venice, the character Jessica is ashamed that the man she loves, Lorenzo, sees her disguised as a boy. She eventually realizes that it doesn’t matter and says, 

But love is blind and lovers cannot see

The pretty follies that themselves commit;

For if they could, Cupid himself would blush

To see me thus transformed to a boy.

Shakespeare actually used the phrase in several more plays. 

In Henry V, Henry says, “Yet they do wink and yield, as love is blind and enforces.”

He used it again in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, where the character Speed says,

Because love is blind. O, that you had mine eyes,

or your own eyes had the lights they were wont to

have when you chid at Sir Proteus for going ungartered!

If someone is jealous or envious, they are said to have been possessed by the ‘green-eyed monster.’

The term ‘green-eyed monster’ first appeared in Othello. In Act 3, Scene 3, Iago tries to manipulate Othello by suggesting his wife, Desdemona, is having an affair. He says, “O beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.”

Previously in The Merchant of Venice, he said something similar when the character Portia says, 

“How all the other passions fleet to air, As doubtful thoughts and rash embraced despair, And shudd’ring fear, and green-eyed jealousy!”

At the time, in Elizabethan England, certain emotions were associated with colors. Yellow was cowardice, and green represented envy and jealousy. Shakespeare personified jealousy as a monster to suggest how dangerous it was.

If you overindulge in something you like, it can be said that you’ve had “Too much of a good thing.”

Shakespeare first used this in As You Like It, Act 4 Scene 1 when the character Rosalind says, 

Why then, can one desire

too much of a good thing?—Come, sister, you shall

be the priest and marry us.—Give me your hand, Orlando.—

What do you say, sister?

If you haven’t gotten any sleep, you might say you “haven’t slept a wink.”

This comes from Cymbeline, Act 3 Scene 4. The character PISANIO  says,  O gracious lady, Since I received command to do this business I have not slept one wink.

If someone eats a lot, they can say to have ‘eaten you out of house and home.’

In Henry IV Part 2, Act 2 Scene 1, a woman says, It is more than for some, my lord; it is for all I have. He hath eaten me out of house and home. He hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything which Shakespeare introduced to the English language which is still being used today.

Here are some additional phrases without going into the source for each one:

  • Neither rhyme nor reason
  • Cruel to be kind
  • The clothes make the man
  • In my heart of hearts
  • Own flesh and blood
  • The be-all and the end-all
  • What’s done is done
  • Sterner stuff
  • Break the ice
  • Foregone conclusion
  • Cold-blooded
  • Brave new world
  • Star-crossed lovers
  • Cold comfort
  • Fair play
  • Dead as a doornail
  • A sorry sight
  • There’s method in my madness
  • Wear my heart upon my sleeve
  • Neither here nor there
  • Send him packing

If you have ever used any of these idioms and phrases, you have unknowingly been quoting Shakespeare.

However, that isn’t all. There are all the words he created and introduced into English. Some of the words are so simple and basic that it is hard to believe that they originated with him. 

Many of the words are compound words that put two simple words together. Other words were taken from other languages and introduced by Shakespeare into English. Still, others were invented out of nothing. 

Here is a very partial list of words introduced into English by Shakespeare:

  • accommodation
  • addiction
  • admirable
  • aerial
  • Amazement
  • auspicious
  • Baseless
  • Bedroom
  • belongings
  • birthplace
  • bloodsucking
  • Bump
  • Cheap
  • circumstantial
  • Countless
  • Courtship
  • Critic
  • disgraceful
  • distasteful
  • downstairs
  • embrace
  • employer
  • Engagement
  • Eyeball
  • farmhouse
  • Fashionable
  • freezing
  • Generous
  • Grime
  • Hint
  • Homely
  • Inauspicious
  • investment
  • invitation
  • Lackluster
  • Lonely
  • majestic
  • Motionless
  • neglect
  • Obscene
  • pageantry
  • Pious
  • Reinforcement
  • Restraint
  • resolve
  • Savage
  • Successful
  • Tranquil
  • Unreal
  • Upstairs
  • Vast
  • watchdog
  • Zany

Mind you, that list is nowhere close to comprehensive. Imagine going back in time to the 16th century, just before Shakespeare, and trying to communicate without using any of these words or the hundreds more than he introduced.

Just putting aside the literary accomplishments of his plays and poems, which is a lot to put aside, Shakespeare’s influence on English just through the words and phrases he introduced is more than anyone else in history. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Shadin Kitma over on the Facebook Group. They write:

Hi Gary, thank you for this podcast. I listen to you when I do woodwork and during the long commutes around the city (Manila is a very congested metropolis). I’ve learned so much from your show, even stuff about my own country and culture that I didn’t know about. I think I’ll be a member of the completionist club within the next few weeks, but I’m not sure if the Philippine chapter is active or open. In any case, I’m happy you’re there and truly appreciate that your show comes daily. Warm regards from the Philippines!

Thanks, Shadin! I’m aware of how the traffic can be in Manila and I’m glad you have the podcast to keep you company. We certainly do have a Philippines chapter of the completionist club. It is located behind a discreet unmarked door in the Intramuros section of the city. 

Also, I do have more episodes on the Philippines planned, which will cover everything from Jose Rizal to the Battle of Corrigidor and a host of other topics. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.