Shakespeare was more than just a wordsmith–he was also the inventor of many idiomatic expressions we commonly use today. Some of his most popular phrases that most people will recognize as his work are “green eyed monster,” “a plague on both your houses,” “a horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,” “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well, Horatio,” and so on. But there are many more idioms he coined that we use everyday that you might not recognize as Shakespeare’s work.
“As cold as any stone”
From King Henry V
This idiom is used generally to describe someone as being unfeeling, but in Henry V the phrase was used to describe the feeling of a dead man lying in bed.
“As merry as the day is long”
From Much Ado About Nothing and King John
This idiom is used to express being happy and Shakespeare used it in the same fashion, although usually in a negative comparison to actions other characters had taken. I could have been as merry as the day is long if you hadn’t done something stupid is the modern equivalent to how Shakespeare used this phrase.
“As good luck would have it”
From The Merry Wives of Windsor
I almost don’t need to describe this one. It just means that you’ve run into a bought of good luck, just as Falstaff had in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
“Come what may”
The Spanish idiom “que sera sera” translates to “what will be, will be,” and predates this Shakespeare idiom and embodies the same idea–what will happen is going to happen, so why fret! Shakespeare coined his own idiom to capture the Spanish spirit within his play Macbeth.
“Eaten out of house and home”
From King Henry IV Part II
This idiom refers to someone eating so much, usually a guest or a family member but not the actual person doing the eating, that they are putting a strain on the finances of their host or relation.
“Even at the turning of the tide”
From King Henry V
When events shift for or against one, this idiom is often used. It was used in Henry V to describe a child’s health going from good to bad.
From The Tempest
Most people are familiar with this idiom and what it means. Fair play is synonymous with good sportsmanship and following the rules as to allow an equal chance for all participating.
“For ever and a day”
From The Taming of the Shrew and As You Like It
This idiom means whatever the speaker is referring to will last longer than indefinitely, which is a very, very long and impossible time. In The Taming of the Shrew it was used by Biondello to say goodbye to Bianca and in As You Like It Orlando declares that he shall love the woman he wishes to possess for ever and a day.
From Love’s Labours Lost, King Henry IV, The Tempest and Pericles, Prince of Tyre
Like fair play, the idiom foul play is used in The Tempest, but I think it’s obvious that Shakespeare enjoyed foul play more as he used it in multiple plays of his. Foul play means the exact opposite of fair play–to be underhanded and cheat, in essence.
From King Henry VI, Part II and The Merchant of Venice
To have one’s heart’s content simply means to be satisfied.
from Comedy of Errors
This idiom means something is long overdue and needs to be taken care of or is now done.
From The Merry Wives of Windsor
Besides being a Foreigner lyric, this idiom can mean being quick to anger or having a passionate nature.
“Love is blind”
From Two Gentlemen of Verona, King Henry V and The Merchant of Venice
This is probably one of my least favorite idiomatic expressions because it is used all the time in bad poetry. Love is blind, meaning that when someone is in love they do not see everything going on as they properly should, is used well in Shakespeare plays. Can’t we just leave it at that other poets?
From the poem The Rape of Lucrece
The term night owl used to refer to actual birds and was used in Richard II and Twelfth Night to refer to birds, but in Shakespeare’s narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, night owl was used to refer to people who stay up late at night rather than just birds and is still used in that connotation today.
“Rhyme nor reason”
From Comedy of Errors and As You Like It
As a poet, or a playwright, words are things that are manipulated and constructed, so when a person can’t use rhyme nor reason to construct a thought, that means that it is an idea that doesn’t make sense from a logical standpoint from the speaker of the idiom.
“The Devil incarnate”
From King Henry V and Titus Andronicus
This idiom means the person or thing being referred to is rotten, devil-like, evil, mean, or some other negative association.
“Too much of a good thing”
From As You Like It
I think everyone has uttered this idiom at least once in their lives. This is a classic phrase meaning that excess of a good thing can do harm. We often use this phrase when we talk to children about moderation, especially around Halloween.
“Wear your heart on your sleeve”
From Othello, The Moor of Venice
I love this idiom so much it’s part of a tattoo I have on my back and yes, I have a heart tattoo on my wrist as well. This idiom today is used to mean that one openly displays their emotions and their feelings can be easily perceived by others. Iago in Othello, however, uses the phrase to mean that he will appear to be an honest man and appear to have nothing to hide, but will actually be executing his dire plan to harm Othello.
“Wild goose chase”
From Romeo and Juliet
Searching aimlessly for something that cannot be found, or being on a hopeless quest, is the meaning of this idiom from one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies.
These are just a few of close to 135 idioms people give Shakespeare credit for coining. If you want to read more, check out Phrases.org.uk.
You can follow Amanda on Twitter @ThePandaBard, on Pinterest @ThePandaBard, or on Medium @ThePandaBard. You can also find her research on Academia.Edu at Cpp.Academia.Edu/MandaRiggle.