A Bard's Dozen: 12 Everyday English Expressions From Shakespeare

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Do you think Shakespeare is only good for Literature classes? Think again. Perhaps no other writer in the English language has contributed so many expressions and turns of phrase to it as William Shakespeare has. In fact, we uset some of those expressions in everyday conversation, though we may not realize it. This long-lasting effect on the language is a testament to the Bard’s incredible influence and enduring popularity.

Even if you’ve never read Shakespeare before, or had to study his plays and poems in Literature classes, you’ve most likely used lines he wrote countless times when talking with other people.Here are a dozen expressions either created, or popularized, by Shakespeare, and where you’ll find them in his body of work.

  1. “A foregone conclusion.” (Othello, Act III, Scene 3: Line 2111)

  2. “Dead as a door nail.” (This expression predates Shakespeare, but he wrote it in Henry VI, Part II, Act IV, Scene 10: 2925)

  3. “Discretion is the better part of valour.” (Henry IV, Part I, Act V, Scene 4: 3077. The actual line is, “The better part of valour is discretion.”)

  4. “Eaten out of house and home.” (Henry IV, Part II, Act II, Scene 1: 797. The actual line is, “He hath eaten me out of house and home.”)

  5. “The green-eyed monster.” (Othello, Act III, Scene 3: 1816)

  6. To be “in stitches” {with laughter} (Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene 2: 1470)

  7. “Give the devil his due.” (Henry IV, Part I, Act I, Scene 2: 224)

  8. “Wear my heart upon my sleeve.” (Othello, Act I, Scene 1: 42)

  9. “Lay it on with a trowel.” (As You Like It, Act I, Scene 2: 232)

  10. “Mum’s the word.” (Henry VI, Part II, Act I, Scene 2: 364. The actual line is, “Seal up your lips, and give no words but mum.”)

  11. “For goodness sake.” (Henry VIII, Prologue: 23)

  12. “Wild-goose chase” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 4: 1228)

Did you recognize any of them? Do you use them yourself? Chances are, if you’re a native English speaker, at least some of them are familiar to you. Shakespeare coloured the English language in a way no other English-language writer had done before, or has done since, even if his connection to his handiwork has been largely forgotten over the centuries.

If you still find Shakespeare too boring, or his language too difficult to understand, don’t worry. If someone asks you why, William can even help you out there. Just use a line from Casca (from Act I, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar), and say it’s all “Greek to me.”

William Shakespeare. Opensourceshakespeare.org, 2003-2011. http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/plays.php, accessed February 23, 2011.


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