The Language Alchemist: Shakespeare’s Contribution to English Vocabulary

Beyond Invention: Shakespeare’s Adaptation of Classical and Foreign Elements

An in-depth look at Shakespeare’s unparalleled contribution to English vocabulary through innovative techniques and creative adaptations with quotes and meaning. The Bard’s language legacy, decoded.

In the sphere of English language, William Shakespeare, the illustrious Bard of Avon, was not merely a playwright. His unmatched talent for combining words, themes, and emotions solidified his status as an artist, but his true genius lay in his alchemy of language. The way he transformed, invented, and brought words to life adds an unparalleled dimension to his legacy. Shakespeare’s ink was his magic wand, conjuring a spectrum of terms and phrases that resonate within the conversations and writings of today.

Shakespeare’s lexical prowess is extraordinary, contributing an estimated several thousands of words to the English language. As scholar Warren King wrote, “Among his vast catalogue of plays, sonnets, and narrative poems, Shakespeare used 17,677 different words. Remarkably, he was the first to use 1,700 of these.” His creativity extended beyond mere invention; he ingeniously repurposed elements from classical literature and foreign languages.

Shakespeare demonstrated unique lexical craftsmanship, transforming the very architecture of language. This involved morphing nouns into verbs, reshaping verbs into adjectives, linking words that had previously stood apart, inserting prefixes and suffixes, and fabricating completely new terms. Many of his creative concoctions are ingrained in our language today. Expressions such as “seen better days,” “strange bedfellows,” “a sorry sight,” and “full circle” continue to resonate in our conversations.

When contrasted with other epochs, the extent of Shakespeare’s contribution to English vocabulary is staggering. His masterful shaping of language instilled a refined style and structure into what was, at the time, a rather unstructured and impromptu language. The written form of Elizabethan English was a faithful mirror to its spoken variant, imparting a robust freedom to express, unhampered by the strictures of prescriptive grammar.

This lack of rigid grammatical rules, while occasionally rendering literature somewhat opaque, also enabled the conveyance of deep-seated emotions with striking intensity. The Bard capitalized on this liberty, using the vitality of the language and its decasyllabic structure in the prose and poetry of his plays, making his work resonate with a broad audience. The result was a dynamic exchange between the scholarly and the everyday, culminating in a unique blend of down-to-earth vigor and grand eloquence that marks Shakespeare’s language.

However, it’s important to note that the credit given to Shakespeare as the originator of many words, with the Oxford English Dictionary attributing over 2,000 to him, may be somewhat overstated. An article in National Geographic underscores this notion, referencing historian Jonathan Hope’s study, “Shakespeare’s ‘Native English.'” According to Hope, the Victorian scholars responsible for the first edition of the OED held Shakespeare in particularly high regard. This led to his works being analyzed more intensively and quoted more frequently. Hence, Shakespeare may be credited with the first recorded use of words or senses of words that were actually utilized by other writers of his time.

First instances of English terms recorded in Shakespeare’s works

Here is a list of words and that are credited to William Shakespeare or were popularized by his works. It’s worth noting that the attribution of these words to Shakespeare may vary among scholars, but they are widely associated with his writings:

A

  • Abrook

“There is a willow grows aslant the brook that shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream; therewith fantastic garlands did she make of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples that the liberal shepherds give a grosser name, but our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them. There, on the pendent boughs her coronet weeds clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke; when down her weedy trophies and herself fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide and, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up; which time she chanted snatches of old lauds, as one incapable of her own distress, or like a creature native and indued unto that element; but long it could not be till that her garments, heavy with their drink, pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay to muddy death.” ― William Shakespeare, Hamlet

  • Addiction

When Shakespeare coined ‘addiction’ in “Othello,” it was in the context of a noble and valiant general’s pleasures, with every man indulging in “what sport and revels his addiction leads him.” Today, ‘addiction’ has a weightier connotation, referring to a damaging dependence on substances or behaviors, offering a stark reminder of our human frailties.

  • All the world’s a stage

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;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

(from As You Like It)

  • All’s well that ends well

“All’s well that ends well” is the title of one of Shakespeare’s plays and is also a phrase used within it. It refers to the idea that difficulties or misfortunes can be overlooked or forgotten if everything turns out well in the end.

  • Amezement

In this quote, Macbeth is expressing the impossibility of experiencing such a range of contrasting emotions all at once – wisdom and amazement, temperance and fury, loyalty and neutrality. His words reveal the turmoil he is experiencing, having just committed regicide. Macbeth is in the throes of guilt, fear, and a desperate need to conceal his heinous act.

Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious,
Loyal and neutral, in a moment? No man.

  • Assassination

The exact quote where the term ‘assassination’ first appears in Shakespeare’s work is in “Macbeth,” Act I, Scene VII:

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success; that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’ld jump the life to come

In this soliloquy, Macbeth contemplates the consequences of murdering King Duncan. The word ‘assassination’ here denotes the premeditated act of killing for political reasons.

B

  • Beast with two backs

The phrase “beast with two backs” is a metaphor used by Shakespeare in his play “Othello.” It’s used to refer to two people engaged in sexual intercourse.

Iago: “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.” – Othello, Act I, Scene I

In this context, Iago is informing Brabantio that his daughter Desdemona has eloped with Othello, “the Moor.” The language Iago uses is deliberately crude and provocative, aiming to incite Brabantio’s anger and prejudice.

  • Brave new world

The term “Brave New World” is prominently recognized as the name of a dystopian science fiction novel authored by Aldous Huxley, first appearing in print back in 1932. This phrase, originally borrowed from Shakespeare’s play, “The Tempest”, is used within the book with a sense of stark irony. The so-called ‘brave new world’ is initially portrayed as a utopian society, however, as the narrative unfolds, this seemingly perfect world reveals itself to be a dystopian nightmare. In this frightful society, individuals find themselves confined and stripped of their fundamental human essence.

‘Oh wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! Oh brave new world,
That has such people in’t.’

  • Break the ice

The phrase “break the ice” is commonly understood to mean to initiate conversation or activities to create a more relaxed and communicative atmosphere, especially when dealing with people who are meeting for the first time. Interestingly, this phrase also has roots in the works of William Shakespeare. In “The Taming of the Shrew,” it is used in the sense of overcoming initial social awkwardness. Here’s the specific line from Act I, Scene II:

Petruchio: “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.

However, in this context, Petruchio uses the phrase “break the ice” to mean establishing a precedent that others can follow, which is a slightly different connotation from how we use the phrase in modern English.

C

  • Cakes and ale

“Cakes and Ale” is a phrase from William Shakespeare’s play “Twelfth Night.” It is used by the character Sir Toby Belch in Act II, Scene III, when he is questioning Malvolio’s disapproval of their merrymaking. Here’s the specific line:

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?

“Cakes and Ale” in this context represent merriment, good times, and indulgence in life’s pleasures. The phrase has been taken up in common usage to denote a carefree enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures. Sir Toby Belch uses it to criticize Malvolio’s puritanical stance, arguing that just because someone chooses to be virtuous doesn’t mean others should be denied their enjoyment.

  • Capulet

The Capulets are one of the two main families in William Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet.” The other is the Montagues. These two families are sworn enemies, and their feud is the main source of the tragic conflict in the play. The most famous Capulet is Juliet, the play’s female protagonist. She falls in love with Romeo, who is a Montague, and this forbidden love ultimately leads to their deaths. Other notable Capulets in the play include Juliet’s parents, Lord and Lady Capulet, and Tybalt, Juliet’s hotheaded cousin who kills Romeo’s friend Mercutio, sparking a chain of events that lead to the tragic ending.

  • Champion (verb)

‘Champion’ as a verb was first used by Shakespeare in “Macbeth” around 1605. He elegantly transforms the noun ‘champion,’ existing since the early 13th century, into a potent verb. The original quote from Act 1, Scene 7 reads, “Come fate into the list, And champion me to the utterance!” This call to action is Macbeth’s desperate plea for fate to fight on his behalf in the impending struggle. The verb ‘champion’ has since evolved in its usage. While Shakespeare used ‘champion’ to denote challenging someone to a contest, it now often refers to advocating or fighting for a cause or person, representing the struggle against adversity in a broader sense. Thus, Shakespeare’s ingenuity not only extended the usage of ‘champion’ but also paved the way for its modern interpretation.

  • Cold-blooded

Cold-blooded comes from Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens,” Act 3, Scene 5. In the quote, Timon berates one of his false friends (a bandit), calling him a “cold-blooded slave.” The phrase ‘cold-blooded’ here is used to describe someone who acts without empathy or feeling.

The entire quote reads:

What a fool art thou,
A ramping fool, to brag and stamp and swear
Upon my party! Thou cold-blooded slave,
Hast thou not spoke like thunder on my side,
Been sworn my soldier, bidding me depend
Upon thy stars, thy fortune and thy strength,
And dost thou now fall over to my foes?

In this passage, Timon expresses his anger and disappointment towards the person he thought was his ally but turned out to be disloyal. This usage of ‘cold-blooded’ effectively conveys the lack of loyalty and empathy on the part of the ‘slave,’ enhancing the dramatic impact of the scene.

  • Cold fish

The phrase “cold fish” does appear in Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” Act 4, Scene 4, where the character Autolycus says:

[I]t was thought she was a woman and was turned into a cold fish for she would not exchange flesh with one that loved her.

In this context, “cold fish” is indeed used to refer to a woman who is seen as emotionally distant or unresponsive to the affections of one who loves her, aligning with the modern usage of the term.

D

  • Dishearten

Therefore when he sees reason of fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are: yet, in reason, no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army.

This quotation comes from “Henry V,” Act 4, Scene 1. Here, King Henry is in disguise, mingling with his soldiers the night before the battle of Agincourt. The line you’ve shared reveals his musing on fear and leadership. The term ‘dishearten,’ first introduced by Shakespeare in this context, refers to the act of instilling fear or loss of courage. In this scene, Henry contemplates how a leader must suppress their fears to avoid demoralizing (‘dishearten’) their followers. He ponders the burdens of leadership and the paradox of the human condition, that even a king harbors fears like any other man, yet must hide them to inspire his troops.The term ‘dishearten’ is still widely used today, carrying the same connotation of causing someone to lose determination or confidence.

E

  • Eat someone out of house and home

“Eat someone out of house and home” is an idiomatic expression originating from William Shakespeare’s play “Henry IV, Part 2.” It is used to describe someone who consumes an excessive amount of food, to the extent that it could financially ruin the host. The character Mistress Quickly, who runs the tavern where Falstaff and his companions spend much of their time, uses the phrase when speaking of Falstaff:

But, i’ faith, you have drunk too much canaries; and that’s a marvellous searching wine, and it perfumes the blood ere one can say ‘What’s this?’ How do you now? … he hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his…” (Act 2, Scene 1).

In this context, Mistress Quickly is complaining about how much Falstaff’s eating and drinking is costing her. The phrase has since entered common English usage with a similar meaning.

  • Ebb and flow

In his play “Henry IV, Part 1”. In Act 1, Scene 2, Falstaff says:

The fortune of us that are the moon’s men doth ebb and flow like the sea, being governed, as the sea is, by the moon.

Here, Falstaff is comparing the changeability of his own fortunes to the ebb and flow of the tides, which are influenced by the moon. This metaphor illustrates the cyclical and ever-changing nature of fortune. Shakespeare often used natural phenomena like this to illustrate human experiences and conditions. My apologies for the previous oversight.

  • Elbow

The verb form of ‘elbow,’ meaning to jostle or push, was first coined by Shakespeare in “King Lear,” Act I, Scene IV.

In this scene, Kent, who is in disguise, is attempting to get rid of Oswald, Goneril’s servant. He says, “Now, what art thou? You egg! Young fry of treachery! (He beats him.) Come, come, I’ll elbow thee; I’ll drive these curses away. (To Lear) Look, sir! I bleed.

This innovative use of ‘elbow’ as a verb adds a physical dimension to the scene, illustrating Kent’s actions as he tries to push Oswald away. The verb ‘to elbow’ is still used in modern English, generally meaning to push or jostle someone with one’s elbow, often in a crowd to make a way or get an advantageous position.

  • Eventful

Shakespeare first used the word “eventful” in “As You Like It,” Act II, Scene VII. The most famous quote from that scene, known as the ‘Seven Ages of Man’ monologue, is where the word is used:

Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion; Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Here, ‘eventful’ is used to describe the dramatic and varied stages of human life. The term ‘eventful’ has remained consistent in modern usage and is often used to describe a period of time or a situation filled with events or incidents, typically of significance.

  • Eyeball

Shakespeare first coined the term “eyeball” in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Act 3, Scene 2. The line goes:

When thou wak’st, thou tak’st
True delight
In the sight
Of thy former lady’s eye.
And the country proverb known,
That every man should take his own,
In your waking shall be shown.
Jack shall have Jill;
Nought shall go ill;
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.

In this scene, Puck is telling a sleeping Demetrius that when he wakes up, he will delight in the sight of his former lover’s ‘eyeball’, thus referring to the eye itself. In today’s language, ‘eyeball’ is commonly used to refer to the whole eye, not just the iris, and often in a more informal or casual context.

F

  • Falstaff

Sir John Falstaff is a fictional character who appears in three of William Shakespeare’s plays: “Henry IV, Part 1”, “Henry IV, Part 2”, and “The Merry Wives of Windsor”. He is also mentioned in “Henry V” but does not appear on stage in that play. Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring characters and has been the subject of many adaptations. He’s known for his wit, humor, and love of life. He is a heavy-drinking, overweight, yet jovial and charismatic knight who spends most of his time in taverns. He is also a bit of a coward, and his tall tales often expose his lack of moral integrity. Despite his many flaws, Falstaff has a certain charm and cleverness that make him a favorite among audiences. His character provides comic relief but also acts as a foil to Prince Hal (the future Henry V), illustrating different perspectives on honor, duty, and leadership. In “Henry IV,” Falstaff serves as a sort of wayward mentor to Prince Hal, who eventually rejects him in favor of his kingly responsibilities. In “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Falstaff tries to woo two married women for their husbands’ wealth, only to be duped and humiliated by them. His actions often lead to comic and chaotic consequences, making him a key source of humor in these plays.

  • Fashionable

The term ‘fashionable’ made its debut in Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida,” Act 3, Scene 3. The line goes:

For time is like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand,
And with his arms outstretch’d, as he would fly,
Grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing.

Here, ‘fashionable’ is used metaphorically to describe time as a gracious and stylish host that greets newcomers with wide open arms and sees off the old ones regretfully. The term ‘fashionable’ has evolved and is widely used in contemporary English, often referring to something or someone that fits in with the most recent popular style or trend, especially in clothing and behavior.

  • Foregone conclusion

The phrase “foregone conclusion” is used to describe a result that is predictable or seems decided in advance. It was coined by William Shakespeare in his tragedy “Othello”. It appears in Act 3, Scene 3, in a dialogue between Othello and Iago:

Othello: “But this denoted a foregone conclusion: ‘Tis a shrewd doubt, though it be but a dream.”

In this context, Othello is reacting to Iago’s insinuations of Desdemona’s infidelity, and the “foregone conclusion” he’s referring to is his suspicion that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him. Since the time of Shakespeare, the phrase has been adopted into common usage in the English language to signify an outcome that seems inevitable or predetermined.

  • Full circle

The phrase “full circle” is often used to describe a situation or series of events that has returned to its initial state, after going through various changes or stages. This can also be applied when someone or something returns to the same position or circumstances where they originally started, effectively completing a cycle or “circle”.

This phrase is used by William Shakespeare in his play “King Lear”. It appears in Act 5, Scene 3, in a dialogue by the character of King Lear himself:

The wheel is come full circle; I am here.

In this context, Lear uses the phrase to illustrate that he has returned to a position of power and control, despite his journey through madness and despair, effectively illustrating the cyclical nature of his fortunes. Since Shakespeare’s time, the phrase “full circle” has come to be used more broadly in English to describe any situation where events seem to have come around to their starting point, completing a kind of cycle.

G

  • Gild the lily

“Gild the lily” is a phrase commonly used to denote the action of unnecessarily adding decoration or adornment to something that is already beautiful or perfect. It suggests over embellishment or the act of trying to improve upon something which already is beyond improvement.

This phrase is derived from William Shakespeare’s play “King John”. In Act 4, Scene 2, Shakespeare wrote:

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, To throw a perfume on the violet… Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

The modern phrase “gild the lily” is a misquotation of Shakespeare’s original lines. “To gild refined gold” and “to paint the lily” both convey the same message of unnecessary adornment. Over time, these phrases have been combined and paraphrased into the popular expression “gild the lily.” Despite the misquotation, the intended message remains consistent with Shakespeare’s original sentiment.

  • Glooming, Gloomy

“Romeo and Juliet,” Act 5, Scene 3, the closing lines of the play where Prince Escalus comments on the tragic events that have transpired:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

The term ‘glooming’ here, a variant of ‘gloomy,’ is used to describe the atmosphere of despair and sadness following the tragic deaths of the young lovers, Romeo and Juliet. It brings out the gravity of the situation and the darkness that overshadows what would typically be a peaceful morning. In the modern context, ‘gloomy’ still retains its meaning as reflective of darkness, desolation, or a sense of melancholy and depression.

  • Gossip

“The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Act 1, Scene 4, when the Hostess dismisses the gossipy Dr. Caius:

“Smatter with your gossips, go!”

In this scene, the term ‘gossips’ refers to people who engage in idle talk or spread rumors, a new usage that Shakespeare introduced. In modern English, ‘gossip’ has retained this meaning, and can refer to both the act of idle or sensational talk, especially about the personal or private affairs of others, and a person who engages in such talk. It can be used both as a noun and as a verb, such as to ‘gossip about someone’.

  • Green-eyed monster

The phrase “green-eyed monster” is a term used to represent jealousy. It was popularized by William Shakespeare and appears in his play “Othello.” In Act 3, Scene 3, Iago, who is trying to manipulate Othello into believing his wife Desdemona has been unfaithful, warns him:

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock The meat it feeds on.”

Here, Iago characterizes jealousy as a “green-eyed monster,” an image that vividly captures the destructive and consuming nature of the emotion. The use of “green” to represent jealousy has its roots in English literature and is thought to have been derived from the green color of a sick person, hence symbolizing an unhealthy state of mind. Despite the fact that the exact origin of the phrase is hard to determine, Shakespeare’s usage in “Othello” has certainly helped to popularize it. The term “green-eyed monster” is now commonly understood to mean jealousy in the English language.

H

  • Hermia

Hermia is a character in William Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She is in love with Lysander and is a childhood friend of Helena. Despite her father Egeus’s insistence that she marry Demetrius, Hermia is determined to marry Lysander, and they plan to elope. Hermia’s refusal to obey her father’s wishes leads to a complaint to Theseus, the Duke of Athens, invoking ancient Athenian law where a daughter must marry the suitor chosen by her father, or else face death. Theseus gives Hermia until his wedding to Queen Hippolyta to decide her fate. Hermia and Lysander’s plans, however, get disrupted by the mischief of Puck, the fairy king Oberon’s servant. Puck mistakenly applies a love potion to Lysander’s eyes, causing him to fall in love with Helena, Hermia’s best friend, who was initially in love with Demetrius. The play features a classic Shakespearean confusion of mismatched lovers before everything gets sorted out at the end. Hermia’s character is often portrayed as strong-willed and independent, ready to fight societal norms for the sake of love.

  • Honorificabilitudinitatibus

“Honorificabilitudinitatibus” is the longest word in the English language featuring alternating consonants and vowels. This 27-letter mouthful appears in William Shakespeare’s play “Love’s Labour’s Lost” (Act 5, Scene 1). It is used by the character Costard and is a Medieval Latin word which means “the state of being able to achieve honors.” The line from the play reads:

COSTARD: I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon.

In this context, Costard is joking about the length and complexity of the word. It’s one of the more humorous examples of Shakespeare’s wordplay and his ability to use language to comic effect. The word is so complex and rarely used that it has been the subject of much scholarly debate and discussion. It’s also one of the many examples of Shakespeare’s love for linguistic experimentation.

  • Hurlyburly

“Hurlyburly” is a term that originates from Middle English and is used to describe uproar, tumult, commotion, or disorder. The term is famously used in William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”. It appears in the first scene of the play, in a conversation among the three witches:

First Witch: When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain? Second Witch: When the hurlyburly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won.

In this context, “hurlyburly” refers to the chaos and tumult of the impending war, symbolizing the larger themes of disorder and moral chaos that permeate the play. The witches’ cryptic conversation sets the tone for the rest of the play, which is filled with deceit, murder, and political turmoil. The term “hurlyburly” is used here to evoke the tumultuous and chaotic nature of these events.

I

  • It’s all Greek to me

The phrase “It’s all Greek to me” is commonly used to express that something is not understood or is incomprehensible. This idiom was popularized by William Shakespeare and appears in his tragedy “Julius Caesar”. The phrase is used by the character Casca in Act 1, Scene 2, when he’s describing to Brutus and Cassius how Cicero made a speech. Since Casca doesn’t understand Latin, the language in which Cicero delivered the speech, he says:

Casca: 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.

Here, “it was Greek to me” is a metaphorical way for Casca to express that Cicero’s speech was totally unintelligible to him. It’s worth noting that in Shakespeare’s time, Greek was considered a scholarly language not widely known among the general public. Since then, the phrase “It’s all Greek to me” has entered common English language usage to denote anything that’s difficult to understand.

J

  • Juliet

Juliet Capulet is one of the main characters in William Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.” She is the only daughter of the patriarch of the House of Capulet and is portrayed as a young and beautiful girl.

L

  • Laughing stock

The phrase “laughing stock” appears in William Shakespeare’s play “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (Act 3, Scene 1), as spoken by the character Master Ford:

Pray you let us not be laughing stocks to other men’s humours: I desire you in friendship, and I will one way or other make you amends.

In this context, Ford uses the phrase “laughing stocks” to describe the potential for himself and others to be the subject of ridicule or amusement for others. This is one of the earliest known uses of this term in English literature.

  • Lackluster

The term ‘lackluster’ made its first appearance in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” Act 2, Scene 7:

And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, ‘It is ten o’clock:
Thus we may see,’ quoth he, ‘how the world wags.

In this scene, Jacques is delivering his famous ‘All the world’s a stage’ speech, and uses the term ‘lack-luster eye’ to describe the weary acceptance and dull outlook of a middle-aged man on the realities of life. Today, ‘lackluster’ is frequently used to describe something or someone that is lacking in vitality, force, or enthusiasm. It can describe anything from a poor performance to dull hair. It embodies a sense of lacking in brilliance or radiance; dull.

  • Lonely, loneliness

The term ‘lonely’ was first used by Shakespeare in “Coriolanus,” Act 4, Scene 1:

Now I see the mystery of your loneliness.

In this scene, Menenius is talking to Coriolanus, who has been banished from Rome and now stands alone. ‘Loneliness’ is used to reflect his solitary state, both physically and emotionally. In today’s language, ‘lonely’ is widely used to describe the feeling of sadness because one has no friends or company, but it can also refer to the state of being alone. It is a term that embodies a vast range of human experiences – from the temporary and transient feelings of isolation to the existential experiences of unsolvable solitude.

M

  • Majesty, majestic

Shakespeare introduced the word ‘majestic’ in its modern sense in “Hamlet,” Act 2, Scene 2:

My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.

In this soliloquy, Hamlet is speaking to King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, and he uses the term ‘majesty’ to reflect on the royal dignity, the grandeur inherent in their positions of power. The word ‘majestic’ in modern English is used to describe something grand, noble, or dignified in character or appearance. It can be used to describe anything from a landscape to a performance that is strikingly beautiful or magnificent.

  • Montague

Montague is one of the two main families in William Shakespeare’s tragedy “Romeo and Juliet”. The Montagues and the Capulets are the two noble families of Verona, whose ancient feud forms the backdrop of the tragic love story between Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet. Lord Montague is Romeo’s father, and Lady Montague is his mother. Despite their high social standing and wealth, they are often at odds with the Capulets, resulting in frequent public brawls and unrest within the city of Verona.

  • Moonbeams

Shakespeare first used the term ‘moonbeam’ in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Act 3, Scene 1:

Love’s stories written in love’s richest books.
To fan the moonbeams from his sleeping eyes.

In this whimsical scene, Bottom the Weaver has been transformed so that he has the head of a donkey. As he sleeps, the fairy queen Titania, under a love spell, dotes on him and orders her fairies to keep moonbeams from disturbing his rest. ‘Moonbeam’ refers to a beam of light from the moon. In modern usage, the term retains the same meaning. It is often used in poetic or romantic contexts to refer to the soft, gentle light that the moon casts during the night.

  • Mortal coil (shuffle off this mortal coil)

The term “mortal coil” is famously used by William Shakespeare in his play “Hamlet.” It appears in Act 3, Scene 1, in Hamlet’s famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause…

In this context, “mortal coil” refers to the troubles of life and the turmoil of existence in the physical world. The phrase “shuffled off this mortal coil” means to die, leave the living (mortal) world (coil). This soliloquy is perhaps one of the most famous passages in English literature and is renowned for its contemplation of life, death, and the afterlife.

  • Multitudinous

The term ‘multitudinous’ was first coined by Shakespeare in “Macbeth,” Act 2, Scene 2:

Ha, they pluck out mine eyes.
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

In this scene, Macbeth has just killed King Duncan and is contemplating the enormity of his crime. He imagines that if he were to wash his bloody hands in the sea, his sins would turn the vast, or ‘multitudinous,’ seas red. ‘Multitudinous’ is used to signify the immense quantity or multitude of the seas. In modern usage, the term is often used to refer to a very large number of something, it is synonymous with “numerous” or “vast”. It is often used in literature and formal or poetic contexts.

  • My kingdom for a horse

The phrase “My kingdom for a horse” is from William Shakespeare’s play “Richard III”. This famous line is said by the character King Richard III in Act 5, Scene 4 During the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard III’s horse is killed, and he is left in a dangerous situation. In this dire moment, he cries out:

A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!

the quote expresses Richard’s desperation and the direness of his situation – he’s willing to give up his entire kingdom just for a horse to escape the battlefield. This line has become one of Shakespeare’s most well-known quotations and is often used in modern speech and writing to denote desperate desire or need in a difficult situation.

N

  • Negotiate

The term ‘negotiate’ in the sense of managing or conducting something, was first used by Shakespeare in “Much Ado About Nothing,” Act 2, Scene 1:

Let every eye negotiate for itself and trust no agent.

In this scene, Claudio, who has fallen in love with Hero, speaks about his desire for her. He advises that each person should judge for themselves and not trust the judgment of others. The use of ‘negotiate’ here is a metaphorical usage, signifying the action of navigating through the complexities of love and relationships. In modern English, ‘negotiate’ has maintained the meaning that Shakespeare used, but it is more often used to refer to discussing something formally in order to reach an agreement, such as a contract, a deal or a settlement in a dispute. It can also be used to describe the act of finding a way through or around an obstacle or difficult path.

O

  • One fell swoop

The phrase “one fell swoop” is used to denote something happening suddenly, all at once, or in a single, swift action. It comes from William Shakespeare’s tragic play “Macbeth.” In Act 4, Scene 3, Macduff learns that his wife and children have been killed on Macbeth’s orders. Overcome with grief, he laments:

All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam At one fell swoop?

Here, “one fell swoop” refers to the sudden and brutal act by which Macduff’s family was slaughtered. The term “fell” in this context comes from an Old English word, ‘felle’, meaning fierce, savage, or cruel. The “swoop” refers to the swooping action of a bird of prey, which is why Macduff refers to the murderer as a “hell-kite” (a kite is a bird of prey). So, in this context, “one fell swoop” refers to a single, cruel, and destructive action. The phrase has been adopted into common usage to refer to any action that occurs all at once or very quickly.

  • Outbreak

The flash and outbreak of a fiery mind, A savageness in unreclaimed blood.“, Hamlet,” Act 2, Scene 1

The quote is part of Polonius’s conversation with Reynaldo. Polonius is preparing Reynaldo to spy on his son Laertes in Paris, and during this discussion, he describes his son’s passionate nature, using ‘outbreak’ to signify a sudden display or burst of emotion. In current usage, the term ‘outbreak’ typically refers to a sudden occurrence or escalation of something, often used in the context of diseases or violence.

P

  • Piece of work

The phrase “piece of work” is often used to refer to a complicated or problematic person or situation. The term is famously used by William Shakespeare in his play “Hamlet”. It appears in Act 2, Scene 2, when Hamlet speaks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about his deep disillusionment and despair:

I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and Queen moult no feather. I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.

In this monologue, the term “piece of work” refers to the marvel that is mankind. Hamlet reflects on the contradictions inherent in human nature: the capability for great nobility and reason, yet also the capacity for evil and folly. His speech is a profound meditation on the human condition and the mysteries of existence.

  • Pious

The term ‘pious’ was first used by Shakespeare in its modern sense in “Hamlet,” Act 3, Scene 1:

We are oft to blame in this, ‘Tis too much proved, that with devotion’s visage And pious action we do sugar o’er The devil himself.

In this scene, King Claudius is revealing his guilt over his sinful acts (killing his brother, the previous King, and marrying his brother’s wife). He is speaking about the tendency of people to cover their ill intentions and actions with a facade of piety and devotion. The word ‘pious’ today is used to describe someone showing reverence and dutifulness in religion. It can also carry a connotation of hypocrisy when used in the context of appearing religiously devout to mask ill intent, similar to its usage by Shakespeare.

  • Poisoned chalice

The term “poisoned chalice” is present in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. It comes from Act 1, Scene 7, when Macbeth is contemplating the murder of King Duncan:

But in these cases
We still have judgement here, that we but teach
Bloody instructions which, being taught, return
To plague th’inventor. This even-handed justice
Commends th’ingredience of our poisoned chalice
To our own lips. He’s here in double trust:
First as I am his kinsman and his subject,
Strong both against the deed; then as his host,
Who should against his murderer shut the door,
Not bear the knife myself. – Macbeth (1.7.7-16)

In this passage, Macbeth is expressing his fear that the violent acts he is planning (the “poisoned chalice”) will eventually come back to harm him. The phrase has since been used metaphorically in various contexts to mean a situation that appears to be good, but is actually harmful or destructive.

  • Pound of flesh

This quote is spoken by Shylock in Act 4, Scene 1, when he is in court arguing his right to claim his bond:

The pound of flesh which I demand of him Is dearly bought; ’tis mine, and I will have it.”

Shylock’s insistence on the pound of flesh, even when offered more than the money’s worth in repayment, symbolizes his desire for revenge against Antonio, who has mistreated him because he is a Jew. This plot is at the center of the conflict in “The Merchant of Venice” and is a stark exploration of themes of mercy, justice, and prejudice.

  • Primrose path

The phrase “primrose path” originates from Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”. In Act 1, Scene 3, Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, cautions her against falling too quickly for Hamlet’s promises of love, saying they may lead her down the “primrose path” of dalliance:

For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute; No more.

I shall the effect of this good lesson keep,
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whilst, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

The term “primrose path” has since come to symbolize a path of ease and pleasure, but one that can lead to moral downfall or destruction. It suggests the deceptive allure of such a path, appearing easy and beautiful (like a path lined with primroses), but ultimately leading to negative consequences.

R

  • Rant

Shakespeare uses the term ‘rant’ in “Hamlet,” Act 3, Scene 2:

I’ll rant as well as thou.

Here, Hamlet is speaking to the Player King, referring to the theatrical, exaggerated manner of speech and behavior that actors often use on stage, what we would now term as ‘ranting’. He promises to match the Player King in this dramatic expression. Today, to ‘rant’ means to speak or express at length in an impassioned, often angry manner. It is often used when someone goes on a long speech, especially if it is filled with complaints or strong opinions.

S

  • Salad days

The term “salad days” comes from Shakespeare’s play “Antony and Cleopatra”. In Act 1, Scene 5, Cleopatra uses it when reminiscing about her youthful exploits:

Cleopatra:
My salad days,
When I was green in judgment, cold in blood,
To say as I said then! But come, away;
Get me ink and paper:
He shall have every day a several greeting,
Or I’ll unpeople Egypt.

Here, “salad days” is used to refer to a time of youth, innocence, and inexperience (“when I was green in judgment”). The term has since been adopted into common usage to mean a period of youthful inexperience or idealism. It sometimes also implies a time of enthusiasm, optimism, and potential.

  • Salt-green

The “salt-green” quote is from Act II, Scene 1 of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” spoken by Oberon, the king of the fairies. The quote in its full context is:

I with the morning’s love have oft made sport,
And, like a forester, the groves may tread,
Even till the eastern gate, all fiery red,
Opening on Neptune with fair blessèd beams,
Turns into yellow gold his salt-green streams.
But notwithstanding, haste; make no delay:
We may effect this business yet ere day.

In this passage, Oberon is speaking to Puck, his mischievous servant. The term “salt-green streams” here refers to the ocean, the domain of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea. “Salt-green” describes the color of the ocean water, which often appears a deep green due to the salt and other minerals in it. Oberon is describing the dawn, when the “eastern gate” (sunrise) with its “fair blessèd beams” (sunrays) turns Neptune’s “salt-green streams” (the ocean) into “yellow gold” (a golden hue that is often seen on the surface of the water at sunrise). Despite the beauty of the dawn, Oberon urges Puck to make haste and not delay the task at hand. They still have time to accomplish their business before day fully breaks.

  • Sea change

The phrase “sea change” originates from Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”. In Act 1, Scene 2, the spirit Ariel sings a song to Ferdinand, leading him to believe that his father has drowned and undergone a transformation:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell.

A “sea-change,” as implied in this song, refers to a profound or notable transformation. The phrase has since been adopted into broader usage to mean a significant change or transformation, often brought about by the sea or other forces of nature. In the context of the song, the term illustrates the magical transformation of a drowned body into something “rich and strange.”

  • Shylock

Shylock is one of the main characters in William Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice”. He is a Jewish moneylender who lends money to his Christian rival, Antonio, setting the plot in motion. The character of Shylock is one of Shakespeare’s most complex figures, and he is often seen as both a villain and a victim.

  • Slings and arrows

The phrase “slings and arrows” comes from one of the most famous soliloquies in William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”. In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet contemplates life, death, and the afterlife in his “To be or not to be” speech. Here’s the relevant portion:

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to?

In this context, “slings and arrows” are metaphors for the hardships and misfortunes (“outrageous fortune”) that one might experience in life. Hamlet is essentially questioning whether it’s more noble to endure life’s hardships or to fight against them, potentially ending one’s own life to do so. This phrase has come to represent the struggles and difficulties that life can throw at us.

  • Something is rotten in the state of Denmark

The phrase “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” is a line from William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”. It’s spoken by the character Marcellus (a guard) in Act 1, Scene 4, after Hamlet follows the ghost of his father, and Marcellus cannot dissuade him:

Marcellus:
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Horatio:
Heaven will direct it.
Marcellus:
Nay, let’s follow him.

In the context of the play, this line indicates that something is not right – it’s a foreshadowing of the corruption and moral decay that is uncovered as the plot unfolds in the royal court of Denmark. The phrase “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” has since become a common saying used to denote corruption or a situation where something is wrong.

  • star-crossed

The term “star-crossed” is one of the most famous phrases from William Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet”. It is used in the prologue to describe the ill-fated love between the two main characters:

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife.

“Star-crossed” means thwarted by fate or destined to be unlucky. In this case, it refers to the doomed love of Romeo and Juliet, who are from two feuding families. The phrase suggests that their love is cursed by their stars (a reference to astrology, which was taken seriously in Shakespeare’s time), and their relationship is doomed from the start. The term “star-crossed” has since been used in the English language to refer to any love or endeavor that is subject to adverse conditions or doomed to end tragically.

  • Swagger

The term ‘swagger’ was first used by Shakespeare in “Henry IV, Part II,” Act 2, Scene 4:

If he swagger, let him not come here: no, by my
faith; I must live among my neighbours; I’ll no
swaggerers: I am in good name and fame with the
very best: shut the door; there comes no swaggerers
here: I have not lived all this while, to have
swaggering now: shut the door, I pray you.

In this scene, Mistress Quickly, the hostess of a tavern, is trying to keep out troublemakers. She uses ‘swagger’ to describe their boisterous, arrogant behavior, which she deems unacceptable in her establishment. In contemporary usage, ‘swagger’ is often used to describe a confident, sometimes arrogant, manner or style. It can refer to the act of walking in a very confident way, or the demeanor of someone who is cool, stylish, and self-assured. It retains some of its original meaning of boastful or insolent behavior, but often carries more positive connotations.

T

  • The lady doth protest too much

“The lady doth protest too much” is a quote from William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”. The line is a part of Act 3, Scene 2, in a conversation between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude:

“Hamlet: Madam, how like you this play?

Queen: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

In this scene, they are watching a play within the play, and Queen Gertrude comments on the overzealous vow of the Player Queen to never remarry if her husband dies.

The phrase “The lady doth protest too much” is often used in contemporary conversation to suggest that a person is insisting so passionately about something not being true that they convince others that the opposite is the case – their protestations are so vehement or frequent that they arouse suspicion. In other words, it refers to the idea that one can “protest too much” in a way that signals a deception.

  • Thisne

Thisbe (sometimes spelled Thisne in some texts) is a character referenced in William Shakespeare’s play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. In the play, the Mechanicals, a group of amateur actors, put on a performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” for the Duke Theseus’s wedding celebration. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is a tragic romance of ancient origin, a kind of precursor to Romeo and Juliet. In Shakespeare’s comedic spin, the tale becomes a farce due to the Mechanicals’ bumbling performance. The character of Thisbe is played by Flute, a bellows-mender. The choice to have a man play a woman’s role is a source of humor in the play, and it’s also historically accurate to the Elizabethan theatre, where all roles were played by men. The character of Thisbe, as presented by the Mechanicals, is exaggeratedly feminine and timid, which adds to the comedic aspect.

  • To thine own self be true

The phrase “To thine own self be true” is a famous quote from William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”. This advice is part of a longer speech given by the character Polonius to his son Laertes in Act 1, Scene 3:

Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

“To thine own self be true” is often interpreted as an exhortation to be honest, authentic, and act in accordance with one’s values and beliefs. However, considering Polonius’s character as a pompous, deceitful, and verbose courtier, some critics argue that the advice is ironic, as it’s not consistent with his actions throughout the play. Regardless, the quote has been widely used and continues to inspire conversations about authenticity and individuality.

  • Tranquil

The term ‘tranquil’ was first used by Shakespeare in “Othello,” Act 3, Scene 3:

Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troops, and the big wars.

In this soliloquy, Othello is grieving the loss of his peace and happiness after Iago has planted the seeds of doubt about Desdemona’s faithfulness. The term ‘tranquil’ here refers to peace of mind, which Othello feels he’s losing. In the modern sense, ‘tranquil’ is used to describe a state or scene of peace and calm, free from disturbance or turmoil. It can refer to anything from a person’s peaceful state of mind to a quiet, serene environment.

U

  • Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown

The quote “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” comes from William Shakespeare’s play “Henry IV, Part 2″. Specifically, it is from Part 2,” Act 3, Scene 1:

“Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down! Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

In this soliloquy, King Henry IV is reflecting on the burdens of kingship. He envies the peace of sleep enjoyed by those who are not burdened by the weight of a crown. The phrase “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” has since become a proverb, implying that people in positions of power live with constant stress and anxiety. It’s a testament to the often overlooked difficulties that come with power and responsibility.

  • Unearthly

The term ‘unearthly’ is used in “The Winter’s Tale,” Act 3, Scene 1:

How ceremonious, solemn, and unearthly It was i’ the offering!

Here, Cleomenes and Dion are discussing the offerings they made at a temple while on an errand for King Leontes of Sicily. Dion describes the sacrificial ceremony as ‘unearthly,’ reflecting the extraordinary, otherworldly nature of the ritual. In contemporary usage, ‘unearthly’ is often used to describe something so unusual, strange, or extraordinary as to seem supernatural or beyond human capabilities. It’s used to convey the sense of something beyond our ordinary experience or understanding.

V

  • Vanish

The term ‘vanish’ is used by Shakespeare in “Othello,” Act 3, Scene 1:

Then put up your pipes in your bag, for I’ll away: go; vanish into air; away!

In this scene, the Clown, a servant to Othello, is speaking to musicians that were ordered to play by Cassio as part of his attempt to get back in Othello’s good graces. The Clown uses ‘vanish’ to abruptly dismiss the musicians. Today, ‘vanish’ means to disappear suddenly or to cease to exist. It’s often used to emphasize the abrupt or mysterious nature of a disappearance and can refer to both a physical disappearance or a decrease to the point of non-existence.

  • Very like a whale

The phrase “very like a whale” comes from William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet”. It is found in Act 3, Scene 2, in an exchange between Hamlet and Polonius:

“Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius: By th’ mass, and ’tis like a camel indeed.

Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.

Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or like a whale.

Polonius: Very like a whale.”

In this scene, Hamlet is teasing Polonius by changing his description of the shape of a cloud, and Polonius agrees with each change. It’s a moment that underscores Polonius’s sycophantic character, as he’s quick to agree with anything Hamlet says, no matter how contradictory or nonsensical. In popular usage, the phrase “very like a whale” might be used to highlight someone’s eagerness to please or their lack of independent judgment.

W

  • What’s done is done

The phrase “what’s done is done” is from William Shakespeare’s play “Macbeth”. This phrase is spoken by Lady Macbeth in Act 3, Scene 2, as she tries to comfort her husband and prevent him from becoming too consumed with guilt over his actions:

LADY MACBETH: Things without all remedy Should be without regard. What’s done is done.

In this context, Lady Macbeth is telling Macbeth that they cannot undo their actions and should therefore focus on the present and future, not the past. This phrase is commonly used today to mean that what has already happened cannot be changed, and we must accept the consequences and move forward. It often carries a sense of resignation or acceptance, implying that there’s no use dwelling on the past.

  • What’s in a name

The phrase “What’s in a name?” is a famous quote from William Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet”. This line is part of Juliet’s dialogue in Act 2, Scene 2, also known as the balcony scene:

JULIET:
O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo called,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

In this scene, Juliet is reflecting on the unfortunate circumstance that she, a Capulet, has fallen in love with Romeo, a Montague. Their families are bitter enemies, and their names represent their respective family allegiances. Juliet argues that a name is simply a label and does not change the essence of a person or a thing. She famously uses the example of a rose, stating that it would still smell as sweet even if it were called by any other name. The phrase “What’s in a name?” is often used in modern conversation to convey the idea that what something or someone is called is not as important as what they truly are.

  • Wild goose chase

The phrase “wild goose chase” is commonly used to describe a futile or fruitless pursuit or an elusive or impossible task. It originated from William Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet.” In Act 2, Scene 4, Mercutio uses the phrase when speaking with Romeo about Romeo’s infatuation with Rosaline:

“Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done, for thou hast more of the wild goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.”

Here, Mercutio uses the term “wild-goose chase” metaphorically to convey the idea that Romeo’s pursuit of Rosaline is aimless and unlikely to succeed. It suggests that Romeo’s efforts are as futile as chasing after a flock of wild geese, which are notoriously difficult to catch. Since then, the phrase “wild goose chase” has entered the English language to describe any endeavor that is ultimately pointless, frustrating, or without a clear goal.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it includes some of the most commonly cited words associated with Shakespeare. He had a remarkable impact on the English language, coining new words and phrases or adapting existing ones in ways that have enriched the language and left a lasting legacy.

Topics: Shakespeare’s contribution to English language, Techniques of Shakespeare’s word craft, Shakespeare and vocabulary expansion, Adaptation of foreign languages in Shakespeare’s work, The impact of classical literature on Shakespeare’s language, Spoken and written Elizabethan English, Popular phrases coined by Shakespeare
Feature image: Shakespeare by William Blake, source

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