“21 Everyday Phrases That Come Straight From Shakespeare's Plays”
by Elena Holodny
“William Shakespeare wrote a lot of great plays, but he also coined and popularized a lot of words and phrases that we still use to this day. We put together a list of our 21 favorites. Check them out:
"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms..."
How Shakespeare uses it: "Puking" was first recorded in Shakespeare's "As You Like It." It was likely an English imitation of the German word "spucken," which means to spit, according to Dictionary.com.
Modern definition: A synonym for the verb "to vomit."
Source: "As You Like It," Act 2, Scene 7
2. "Vanish into thin air"
"Then put up your pipes in your bag, for I'll away. Go; vanish into air; away!" (Othello)
How Shakespeare uses it: The Clown says this to the musicians in "Othello" to make them go away. But some have also suggested that there is a darker underlying meaning. Act 3 in Othello is the final act that suggests that all of this might have a happy ending. It gets pretty dark starting in Act 4. So the Clown might be symbolically asking musicians and all happy things to "vanish into thin air" because there's no more room for them in the play. A similar phrase is also found in "The Tempest."
Modern definition: To disappear without a trace.
3. "There's a method to my madness"
"Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't. Will you walk out of the air, my lord?"
How Shakespeare uses it: Polonius says it in "Hamlet," basically suggesting that there is reason behind apparent chaos.
Modern definition: The meaning is the same nowadays, although the language is a bit updated into modern terms. It is also a Bee Gees song.
Source: "Hamlet," Act 2, Scene 2
4. "Wild-goose chase"
"Nay, if they 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:
was I with you there for the goose?"
How Shakespeare uses it: Mercutio says that he can't keep up with Romeo's jokes and puns. Romeo tells him to continue, but Mercutio sees the endeavor as a "wild goose chase." A wild-goose chase was reportedly a real game back in 16th-century England in which "a horseman executed a series of difficult maneuvers which others had to repeat in close succession."
Modern definition: A senseless - and probably hopeless - pursuit of an object or an end.
5. "The green eyed-monster"
"Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on."
How Shakespeare uses it: Iago says this phrase as he plants doubts in Othello's mind about his wife's faithfulness. Merriam-Webster writes that he may have been evoking cats, given that they are "green-eyed creatures who toy with their prey before killing it."
Modern definition: Now "the green eyed-monster" is an idiomatic expression for the noun "jealousy."
Source: "Othello," Act 3, Scene 3
6. "Break the ice"
"... And if you break the ice and do this feat,
Achieve the elder, set the younger free
For our access, whose hap shall be to have her
Will not so graceless be to be ingrate."
How Shakespeare uses it: Tranio suggests if Petruchio can "break the ice," then he will be able to woo Katherina. By using the "ice" language, Shakespeare makes Katherina seem as cold as ice. Moreover, the fact that the ice needs to be broken suggests that she is hard to reach. But the first actual usage of "break the ice" probably comes from Sir Thomas North's 1579 translation of "Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans" - although in this case the phrase meant "to forge a path for others to follow," alluding to the breaking of ice to allow the navigation of boats.
Modern definition: "Break the ice" still means to get to know someone.
7. "Wear my heart upon my sleeve"
"For when my outward action doth demonstrate
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."
How Shakespeare uses it: Devious Iago basically says that if his outward appearance reflected what he was thinking, then his heart would be on his sleeve for birds to peck at - which is not a good idea in his eyes. And so he adds that he is actually not what he appears to be. Notably, Iago's motives for his antagonistic behavior are never fully revealed - so it is interesting that he is the character who has immortalized this phrase.
Modern definition: To show one's feelings openly.
Source: "Othello," Act 1, Scene 1
"What hempen home-spuns have we swaggering here,
So near the cradle of the fairy queen?
What, a play toward! I'll be the auditor;
An actor too, perhaps, if I see cause."
How Shakespeare uses it: Puck, a mischievous sprite, uses the term "swagger" to mean "insolent." It might have been a frequentative form of "swag," which means "to sway." The word is also found in "Henry IV: Part 2" where Mistress Quickly gives a speech about super-aggressive men who visit her tavern, where the meaning of swagger suggests the meaning of boasting or bragging. Additionally, the term is also found in "King Lear," where it most closely means "blustering." Although, here it is spelled "zwaggered."
Modern definition: Jay Z used "swagger" and "swag" in several songs back in the early 2000s. Soulja Boy also used the word - "she likes my swag." Since then, it has been often used in modern song lyrics.
Sources: "A Midsummer Night's Dream," Act 3, Scene 1, "Henry IV: Part 2," Act 2, Scene 4, "King Lear, Act 4, Scene 6
9. "All of a sudden"
"I pray, sir, tell me, is it possible
That love should of a sodaine take such hold?"
How Shakespeare uses it: Apparently, Shakespeare might have thought that "all of a sudden" was a more poetic way of saying "suddenly" so he had the character Tranio in "The Taming of the Shrew" say it that way. Although, Shakespeare wasn't the first to use "sudden" - John Greenwood used it in 1590.
Modern definition: The meaning is the same, although we now spell it "sudden" rather than "sodaine." The word is spelled in the modern way in newer printings of "The Taming of the Shrew."
10. "A heart of gold"
"The king's a bawcock, and a heart of gold,
A lad of life, an imp of fame;
Of parents good, of fist most valiant. ..."
How Shakespeare uses it: King Henry disguises himself as a commoner in the play and asks Pistol, who is unaware of the disguise, whether he considers himself to be better than the king. Pistol responds with the above quote.
Modern definition: To be extremely kind and helpful.
Source: "Henry V," Act 4, Scene 1
11. "One fell swoop"
"He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?"
How Shakespeare uses it: Macduff says this after finding out that his family and servants have been killed. Shakespeare's use of the hunting bird's' "fell swoop" imagery reflects the ruthlessness and deadliness of the attack.
Modern definition: In one, sudden act.
Source: "Macbeth," Act 4, Scene 3
12. "Devil incarnate"
"O worthy Goth, this is the incarnate devil
That robb'd Andronicus of his good hand." (Titus Andronicus)
"Yes, that a' did; and said they were devils incarnate." (Henry V)
How Shakespeare uses it: Lucius calls Aaron the Moor the "devil incarnate" - aka a devil in the flesh - after all the suffering he causes his family. Chief among them, convincing Demtrius and Chiron to rape Lavinia and framing Martius and Quintus for the murder of Bassianus. Shakespeare also reused the phrase about a decade later in "Henry V."
Modern definition: The meaning of the phrase is more or less unchanged.
13. "Stuff that dreams are made on/of"
"We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep."
How Shakespeare uses it: This phrase is not as cheerful as we use it today. Prospero is saying that peoples' lives - and his magic - are like dreams: We experience them, and then they totally evaporate without leaving any lasting evidence. "Sleep" likely refers to death here.
Modern definition: Nowadays, we say "stuff that dreams are made of" rather than "on." And it also refers to some sort of fantasy things or life that we could only dream of having.
Source: "The Tempest," Act 4, Scene 1
14. "To come full circle"
"Thou hast spoken right, 'tis true;
The wheel has come full circle: I am here."
How Shakespeare uses it: Edmund says the phrase at the end of "King Lear," highlighting how he has "completed a cycle" where his diabolical actions have come back to haunt him. Shakespeare was also probably referencing Fate - and the "Wheel of Fortune" - from ancient and medieval philosophy, which thus introduced the question of free will versus everything being determined by fate.
Modern definition: Completing a cycling, getting back to the beginning.
Source: "King Lear," Act 5, Scene 3
15. "In my heart of heart"
"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."
How Shakespeare uses it: While speaking with Horatio, Hamlet says this phrase noting that if there's a man who is "not passion's slave" - aka, a master of his emotions - then he'll put him close to his heart. Using the language "heart's core" right before suggests that Hamlet means some very deep, central part of his heart/emotions.
Modern definition: Nowadays, we pluralize the second "heart" to say "in my heart of hearts." The phrase refers to one's inner-most, secret thoughts.
Source: "Hamlet," Act 3, Scene 2
16. "Too much of a good thing"
"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?"
How Shakespeare uses it: This phrase may have been a proverb dating to the late 15th century, but Shakespeare was the one who has it immortalized in print. Rosalind is pretending to be a man named Ganymede while she is with Orlando, with whom she is in love. He's also in love with Rosalind - and doesn't know she is Ganymede - and practices how he would woo Rosalind with Ganymede. At one point, Rosalind/Ganymede suggests that they have a pretend wedding, and asks if one can ever have too much of a good thing.
Modern definition: Too much good might backfire and be bad.
Source: "As You Like It," Act 4, Scene 1
17. "All that glitters is not gold"
"All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold."
How Shakespeare uses it: Shakespeare seems to be the first person to have written this phrase, although the idea was not new. The Prince of Morocco, one of Portia's suitors in "The Merchant of Venice," much choose out the correct casket to get his bride: one gold, one silver, and one lead. The gold one has an inscription on it which reads "All that glitters is not gold... gilded tombs do worms enfold." But he picks it anyway ...
Modern definition: Basically, just because it's shiny and nice on the outside, doesn't mean that that's true of the inside.
18. "Good riddance"
Thersites: "I will see you hanged, like clotpoles, ere I come any more to your tents: I will keep where there is wit stirring and leave the faction of fools."
Patroclus: "A good riddance."
How Shakespeare uses it: Although it's not the first usage of "riddance," Shakespeare appears to be the first person to use the phrase "good riddance" in "Troilus and Cressida." He also had Portia wish the Prince of Morocco "a gentle riddance" in "The Merchant of Venice" six years earlier.
Modern definition: People say this expression when they are happy to have gotten rid of someone or something useless or bad.
19. "Send him packing"
"'Faith, and I'll send him packing."
How Shakespeare uses it: Falstaff says this to dismiss the messenger in "Henry IV: Part 1," which is evidently the first use of the phrase.
Modern definition: The meaning is the same today: It's something one says to make someone leave abruptly.
20. "Love is blind"
"...But love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit;..."
How Shakespeare uses it: Technically, Chaucer first wrote the phrase "For loue is blynd alday and may nat see." But Shakespeare was the one who popularized it. In the scene, Jessica has disguised herself as a boy to see her lover, Lorenzo, but feels quite "ashamed" of her get-up. Still, she comments that love is blind and people are unable to see the shortcomings of their lovers.
Modern definition: The meaning of the phrase is more or less unchanged.
21. "Knock knock! Who's there?"
"Here's a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should have old turning the key.
knock, knock! Who's there, i' the name of Beelzebub?"
How Shakespeare uses it: There's no direct connection from Macbeth to the knock-knock joke, but it is fun that a phrase that we now associate with lame-ish jokes is also found in the scene after Macbeth murders Duncan.
Modern definition: The knock-knock joke.
Source: "Macbeth," Act 2, Scene 3
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, here:
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, here: