The Folger Shakespeare Library

The Folger Shakespeare Library

Today is the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, or at least the day that is traditionally observed as his birthday.  It is also the 398th anniversary of the day he died in 1616, at the age of exactly 52.   An English poet and playwright, he is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist.  But I also think it would be fair to say that he has a reputation as the bane of every schoolchild’s life, and that the average man on the street these days would not understand the language of Shakespeare’s writings.

While it can be difficult at times to decipher the flowery poetry and metaphors, it can be equally difficult to understand his vast vocabulary.  Many of the words he used are now obsolete and not understood by people in the modern era.  But many of the other words he used we understand, but were not initially understood by the people of his time.  This is because when he got stuck trying to think of a word he would often just make up one up.  It’s kind of like what rappers do today, except many of the words and phrases Shakespeare made up got embedded into our culture and have formed the cornerstone of our discourse, rather than being obnoxious and forgotten as soon as the song’s popularity fades.

Shakespeare invented more words and phrases than many people even know.  By some estimations, there are at least 2,000 different words and phrases that don’t appear anywhere prior to the “Bard of Avon” putting them on paper.   The following is a selection of just a few of the now popular words and phrases Shakespeare invented (and his plays and writings in which they are featured):

a foregone conclusion (Othello)
a pound of flesh (The Merchant of Venice)
a sorry sight (Macbeth)
addiction (Othello)
advertising (Measure for Measure)
all that glitters isn’t gold (The Merchant of Venice)
all the world’s a stage (As You Like It)
all’s well that ends well (All’s Well That Ends Well)
arch-villain (Timon of Athens)
arouse (King Henry VI, Part II)
as good luck would have it (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
as pure as the driven snow (Macbeth)
assassination (Macbeth)
bated breath (The Merchant of Venice)
beached (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
bedazzled (The Taming of the Shrew)
bedroom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
belongings (Timon of Athens)
bet (King Henry IV, Part II)
beware the Ides of March (Julius Caesar)
break the ice (The Taming of the Shrew)
brevity is the soul of wit (Hamlet)
budge an inch (The Taming of the Shrew)
bump (Romeo and Juliet)
buzzer (Hamlet)
champion (Macbeth)
clothes make the man (Hamlet)
cold-blooded (King John)
critic (Love’s Labour’s Lost)
cruel to be kind (Hamlet)
dawn (Henry V)
dishearten (Henry V, Part 2)
double double toil and trouble (Macbeth)
drugged (Macbeth)
eaten me out of house and home (Henry IV)
elbow (King Lear)
epileptic (King Lear)
eventful (As You Like It)
excitement (Hamlet)
exposure (Troilus and Cressida)
eyeball (The Tempest)
fair play (King John)
fashionable (Troilus and Cressida)
flesh and blood (Hamlet)
forever and a day (As You Like It)
fortune’s fool (Romeo and Juliet)
frugal (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
full circle (King Lear)
generous (Love’s Labours Lost)
gloomy (King Henry VI, Part I)
good riddance (Troilus and Cressida)
gossip (The Comedy of Errors)
green-eyed monster (Othello)
high time (A Comedy of Errors)
hint (Othello)
hob nob (Twelfth Night)
in a pickle (The Tempest)
in my heart of hearts (Hamlet)
in my mind’s eye (Hamlet)
in the twinkling of an eye (The Merchant of Venice)
inaudible (All’s Well That Ends Well)
it’s Greek to me (Julius Caesar)
knock, knock! Who’s there? (Macbeth)
laugh oneself into stitches (Twelfth Night)
laughable (The Merchant of Venice)
laughing stock (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
lie low (Much Ado About Nothing)
lonely (Coriolanus)
love is blind (The Merchant of Venice)
luggage (King Henry IV, Part I)
madcap (Love’s Labour’s Lost)
majestic (Julius Caesar)
manager (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
masters of their fates (Julius Caesar)
measure for Measure (Timon of Athens)
method in the madness (Hamlet)
milk of human kindness (Macbeth)
mimic (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
moonbeam (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
mountaineer (Cymbeline)
multitudinous (Macbeth)
mum’s the word (Henry VI, Part 2)
negotiate (Much Ado About Nothing)
neither here nor there (Othello)
new-fangled (Love’s Labour’s Lost)
obscene (Love’s Labour’s Lost)
one fell swoop (Macbeth)
onscene (Othello)
pageantry (Timon of Athens)
parting is such sweet sorrow (Romeo and Juliet)
pomp and circumstance (Othello)
premeditated (King Henry VI, Part I)
puking (As You Like It)
rant (Hamlet)
remorseless (King Henry VI, Part II)
scuffle (Antony and Cleopatra)
short shrift (Richard III)
skim milk (King Henry IV, Part I)
something wicked this way comes (Macbeth)
star-crossed lovers (Romeo and Juliet)
strange bedfellows (The Tempest)
such stuff as dreams are made on (The Tempest)
swagger (Henry V, Part 2)
the be-all and the end-all (Macbeth)
the course of true love never did run smooth (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
the dogs of war (Julius Caesar)
the lady doth protest too much (Hamlet)
the short and the long of it (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
The winter of our discontent (Richard III)
The world’s my oyster (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
to be or not to be (Hamlet)
to thine own self be true (Hamlet)
too much of a good thing (As You Like It)
torture (King Henry VI, Part II)
uncomfortable (Romeo and Juliet)
undress (The Taming of the Shrew)
vanish into thin air (Othello)
varied (Titus Andronicus)
we have seen better days (As You Like It)
wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve (Othello)
what light through yonder window breaks? (Romeo and Juliet)
what the dickens (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
what’s done is done (Macbeth)
wild-goose chase (Romeo and Juliet)
Worthless (King Henry VI, Part III)
zany (Othello)

In recognition of the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and death, as well as his numerous contributions to the English language, on a recent bike ride I went to the Folger Shakespeare Library, located in southeast D.C. at 201 East Capitol Street on Capitol Hill (MAP).  The Library is a world-renowned research center and is home to the world’s largest and finest collection of Shakespeare materials and to major collections of other rare Renaissance books, manuscripts, and works of art.  It serves a wide audience of researchers, visitors, teachers, students, families, and theater- and concert-goers.

FolgerShakespeareLibrary01     FolgerShakespeareLibrary03     FolgerShakespeareLibrary05

  1. Amazing! I had no idea that he was the originator of all these words and phrases. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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