Phrases we use today which we owe to Shakespeare

Phrases we use today which we owe to Shakespeare
The list of phrases and sayings which we owe to Shakespeare is both surprising and extensive!

There are so many things that we say in everyday speech without giving them a second thought, and it turns out that Shakespeare had a hand in quite a few! From “vanish into thin air” to “wear your heart on your sleeve”, a lot of today’s most used phrases came from Shakespeare’s works – or at least he provided us the first written record of them.

william shakespeareWhen was the last time you heard a “Knock knock” joke? Recently? Or not for a while? If your life has been lacking a “Knock knock” joke for some time, let me rectify that.

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“A broken pencil.”

“A broken pencil who?”

“Never mind. It’s pointless.”

So why am I indulging you in some questionable humour? It is, of course, because the phrase “Knock knock! Who’s there?” comes from Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’.

william shakespeare macbethPorter:
Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of Hell Gate,
he should have old turning the key. [Knock] Knock, knock,
knock! Who’s there, i’ th’ name of Belzebub? . . . [Knock] Knock,
knock! Who’s there, in th’ other devil’s name?

             ‘Macbeth’, Act 2, Scene 3, 1-8.

The “‘Knock knock’ craze” swept America in 1936, and by the end of that year had arrived in Britain too. “Knock knock” jokes were everywhere. And they weren’t just bad puns to roll your eyes at either; back when there was some novelty to them, they were actually funny! Can you imagine?

Though we can’t trace the jokes directly back to Shakespeare, there’s a strong chance that Act 2, Scene 3 of ‘Macbeth’ provided the basis of every time you have sighed on hearing a leading “Knock knock!”.

So what else is on this long list of phrases passed down to us from Shakespeare?
Take a look at the collection below to discover some of Shakespeare’s influence on our language. And then why not challenge your powers of guesswork (or knowledge!) with our quiz on how Shakespeare fitted gems such as “wild goose chase” into his plays.
  • “Laughing stock”

Meaning: a person subjected to ridicule.

Possible use: “Mum, I am not going out in this hat! It’s awful! I’ll be a laughing stock!”

  • “Break the ice”

Meaning: do or say something to relieve tension or get a conversation going.

Possible use: “You want to play Twister? Is that really the best way to break the ice?”

  • “Wild goose chase”

Meaning: a foolish and hopeless search for, or pursuit of, something unattainable

Possible use: “Trying to find that missing sock is clearly a wild goose chase.”

  • “In a pickle”

Meaning: In a difficult predicament; a mess; an undesirable situation.

Possible use: “This cold was the worst. Having sneezed violently into my hand, and with no tissue nearby, I found myself in a bit of a pickle.”Things we say today we owe to Shakespeare

  • “Seen better days”

Meaning: old or in bad condition.

Possible use: “The jeans were faded and covered in rips (and not the intentional kind). The sorry old pair had seen better days.”

  • “The world is your oyster”

Meaning: You can achieve anything or go anywhere because you have the opportunity or ability to do so.

Possible use: “Missing sock, you are free! Go and explore – the world is your oyster!”

  • “It’s all Greek to me”

Meaning: I can’t understand it at all.

Possible use: “I try to pay attention in maths lessons, I really do. But quite frankly, it’s all Greek to me!”

  • “Method in his madness”

Meaning: someone’s strange behaviour has a purpose.

Possible use: “A friend has invited me for a day out for a ‘fun’ day trip to IKEA. She assures me there’s method in her madness…”

Now you’re sure what they mean, do you know where they came from?

How did you do? Let us know in the comments!

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This post was written by Holly Newson.

Picture credit: Jessie Chapman – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

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