Household words* – what our language owes to Shakespeare

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 22nd, 2011 at 6:40 AM

The Yvonne Arnaud's striking Macbeth poster

I went to see a production of Macbeth on Tuesday night by the Icarus Theatre Collective at The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford.

The staging was stark, dark and fabulous, and sitting there watching some excellent performances from the small cast of seven, I was reminded how much our language owes to Shakespeare.

OK. I know you Bard haters and detractors will disagree but so many of his phrases are still commonplace in our language almost four centuries after his death. 

Pound of flesh, from Merchant of Venice, is perhaps one of the most famous but during Macbeth last night I noted,  ‘milk of human kindness’, and even ‘knock, knock, who’s there’. I have to admit, the latter did sound strangely out of context!

And apparently, although he didn’t invent the word, the play also claims the first recorded use of the word ‘assassination’. I learned that from reading ‘1599 – A year in the Life of William Shakespeare’ by James Shapiro (published by Faber and Faber ISBN 0-571-21480-0).

Shapiro also says that over the course of Henry the Fifth, Shakespeare invented more than 20 new words. They include: impawn; womby vaultages (my favourite); nook-smitten (a close second); congreeted; enscheduled (sounds like modern-day management speak); and curselaire. I suppose it just goes to show that Will wasn’t always so successful at inventing resonating, century-spanning words.

Here are a couple more everyday phrases that came from Shakespeare’s quill:

All that glisters is not gold – Merchant of Venice

As luck would have it – The Merry Wives of Windsor

Green-eyed monster – Othello

You’ll find 133 more at The Phrase Finder

And why not find out your writing stacks up against Shakespeare’s by taking the ‘How Shakespearean are you?’ test on the OxfordWords blog. It’s great fun!

*By the the way, the first part of this post’s title – ‘household words’ – is borrowed from the Saint Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V.

What are your favourite Shakespeare phrases?



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Hello. I'm Elaine, I'm a copywriter and this is my blog.

It's mostly about words and writing - things that inspire me, entertain me, and make me smile. Sometimes it's about things that horrify me so much I want to scream and shout!

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