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Phrases We Owe to Shakespeare

So you think Shakespeare is boring, do ya?

By Hayley BonnettPublished 6 years ago 3 min read

If you went to high school at any point in time after 1800, chances are you've read something by Shakespeare. Whether it be Julius Caesar, Romeo & Juliet, or Midsummer Night's Dream, William Shakespeare's words have graced your ears, eyes, and brains at some point in your life. Shakespeare's plays come with mixed reviews — they are often regarded highly by literature and theater geeks, while viewed with groans and eye rolls by the rest of society. However, Shakespeare was quite the wordsman, and loved to invent phrases in his writing. Many of these phrases are still used in everyday conversation! Here are the most common ones.

1. "Knock, knock! Who's there?"

That's right, the old standby joke format came from good ol' Will. It was first used in his play, Macbeth. However, it was not used in a joking manner until 1936, when Variety reported that the "Knock Knock" craze was sweeping the entertainment industry.

2. "Faint-hearted"

This term, meaning "weak" or "easily scared" came from Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I, but was used as a term of endearment then. It has since come around to its modern meaning.

3. "Seen Better Days"

This phrase is more commonly used in the Southern United States, but started out in one of Shakespeare's lesser-known works, As You Like It. It was not used to describe a physical object, but rather a decline in fortune of Duke Senior's men. They were worn, and the days were long, so they had "seen better days." Southern mommas are thankful for this one, Mr. Shakespeare.

4. "For Goodness' Sake"

This phrase first popped up in Henry the Eighth, and was used in a more literal sense than its modern counterpart. It was used to mean, literally, "do this for the sake of being good." Today, it has transcended into the modern expression of surprise as we know it, and is often used in place of "For God's Sake!" by the more conservative English-speakers.

5. "In a Pickle"

"In a pickle" is a commonly used phrase that is really strange, if you think about it. Its exact lineage is unknown, but was used by Shakespeare in The Tempest to describe a drunk man's troubles. It is thought that Shakespeare used a bit of pun here, referencing that alcohol, often used in the pickling process, got Trinculo in trouble.

6. "The World is [One's] Oyster"

Shakespeare used this phrase in a more violent context than that of today. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Pistol used this phrase to describe the way that he will violently pillage his treasure, comparing his journey to that of opening an oyster. We have adopted the phrase since then in a more docile manner, using it as a phrase of hope and good fortune.

7. "Break the Ice"

A favorite among teachers, "breaking the ice" came from The Taming of the Shrew. Its original context was strikingly similar to that of today, as it was used to encourage a character to get to know a lady so he could woo her. However, it is worth nothing that Will used "break the ice" to also describe the nature of said lady — cold and hard to crack. Shakespeare was quite good at subtle insults.

8. "Vanish Into Thin Air"

The perfect phrase to end this article on, "vanish into thin air" means to be gone quickly or without a trace. It was first spotted in Shakespeare's Othello, in which the musicians and clown "vanish into thin air," and are never seen again. So, its origin is that of its modern usage.

Next time an old cliche crosses your brain, give a nod to Shakespeare, why don't ya?


About the Creator

Hayley Bonnett

19. UCF. Aggressively mediocre at a handful of things.

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