No single writer has done more to change and shape the English language than Shakespeare. As a mark of his lasting legacy and talent as a playwright, many of the words and phrases he came up with are still in common use today.
Why have Shakespeare’s words and phrases become such an integral part of the English language? For a start, his plays have been incredibly popular, being taught to schoolchildren for decades, being read for centuries, his plays being performed in theatres around the world and turned into successful movies too. So a lot of people have been exposed to Shakespeare’s works.
Here are some examples of just a few of his brilliant turns of phrase that you can use in your own English conversations and writing today.
In a pickle
This phrase means in a difficult position. For example, if you’re out on a date with a guy – and then your boyfriend walks in to the same bar… Originally, pickle was a spicy sauce that was served with meat in Shakespeare’s day, and today it still also describes vegetables or meat that is preserved in vinegar or brine. While there are references to pickles in the late 16th century, Shakespeare was one of the first to use in a pickle in this context.
“I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last.” – The Tempest
This is a well-known phrase in English, meaning jealousy. Jealousy is a very powerful emotion, powerful enough to drive some people to commit murder, so it’s easy to see why Shakespeare would describe this emotion as a monster. Why green? Green is a colour associated with sickness, possibly because people’s skin sometimes takes on a slightly yellow/green tinge when they are seriously ill. Green is also the colour of many unripe foods that cause stomach pains, and jealousy can make you feel physically ill or as if you are in pain.
“It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” – Othello
Love is blind
Here’s a phrase that Shakespeare didn’t actually invent. It was another great English writer, Chaucer, who first used this phrase in 1405. But Shakespeare used it in lots of his plays, and helped to make it part of our everyday language today. Have you ever had a friend who fell in love with someone you didn’t like? You just couldn’t understand what they saw in the person they claimed to love? Well, that’s because love is blind – those in love are willing and able to overlook many faults in the ones they love.
“I am much ashamed of my exchange, but love is blind and lovers cannot see, the pretty follies that themselves commit.” – The Merchant of Venice
This word didn’t exist before Shakespeare used it to describe a particular gleam of sunlight. It’s since been used to describe glitter on fashionable clothing, anything that is eye-catching and it’s the name of a famous movie or two.
“Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes, that have been so bedazzled with the sun that everything I look on seemeth green.” – The Taming of the Shrew
Before Shakespeare used this phrase metaphorically, to describe a person, it had been used only to describe reptiles, which are cold-blooded. Here Shakespeare creates a new way to describe someone who is emotionally cold. Since he first used it in his 17th century play it has become a common term to describe murderers, vampires, serial killers – any unfeeling person or creature.
“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 fores?” – King John
Here are a few more Shakespearean words for you to listen out for in everyday English today, and the plays you’ll find them in too:
Rant – Hamlet
Assassination – Macbeth
Fashionable – Troilus and Cressida
Obscene – Love’s Labour’s Lost
Addiction – Othello
Swagger – Henry V
Zany – Love’s Labour’s Lost
Do you have any favourite words and phrases you’ve found in Shakespeare’s plays? Share them with us in the comments.