Author: Joshua Burns
W illiam Shakespeare has long been known as the most famous English-language writer-and for good reason. Nearly all of his plays are still performed throughout the world just over 402 years after his death. That’s quite impressive considering the Elizabethan form of English he wrote in is quite different from today.
Even native English speakers can sometimes find the language in difficult. It has long been the bane of schoolchildren’s existence* in English-speaking countries as they are forced to read the difficult plays. However, what many of them don’t realise is that a large number of phrases we use today were first coined* by Shakespeare.
Break The Ice
Nevermind English speakers quoting Shakespeare without realising, sometimes the Spanish do as well. The common phrase romper el hielo, where something happens to become more comfortable with a new person, actually appears in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. So, the next time you meet someone you can break the ice by telling them about where the phrase break the ice comes from.
Knock, Knock! Who’s There?
In the modern world, this is well known as the start of a type of joke. Knock-knock jokes are favourites among children and always follow the same formula. The person telling the joke starts off by saying, ‘Knock knock’. The standard reply is, ‘who’s there?’ The next part changes depending on the specific joke. One example would be ‘Kanga’. The standard reply is to repeat what the person has said, followed by ‘who?’ So this would be, ‘Kanga who?’ The punchline* of the joke is then revealed, ‘it’s not Kanga-who it’s Kangaroo!’
The original, however, was not quite so funny. It comes from Macbeth but it’s no joke—it’s just someone asking who’s at the door!
Heart Of Gold
Some of you may recognise this phrase from the Neil Young song of the same name but it’s also a very well-known phrase. It simply refers to a person who is very kind by their nature. Shakespeare used it in Henry v where the character Pistol says, “The king’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold, a lad of life, an imp of fame, of parents good, of fist most valiant.”
None of the other expressions have stood the test of time.*
All That Glitters Is Not Gold
This is another that has a Spanish equivalent ‘no es oro todo lo que reluce’, so it might be surprising to find out that, once again, it was The Bard* that first said it. Well, saying he first said it might be stretching it* a bit, as there are variations that go back as far as the 12th century in English, and before that it was likely said in Latin. However, it was Shakespeare who wrote it down in The Merchant of Venice in the form that people say it today, so we have to give him some credit.
We use this expression when somebody is searching for something that is entirely pointless or unattainable. A common example is a type of practical joke known as a ‘fool’s errand’ when a new person at a job is sent to find something that doesn’t exist. For example, they might be sent to find ‘cans of dehydrated water’, and the resulting trek in search of something that doesn’t exist becomes a wild-goose chase.
Wear My Heart Upon My Sleeve
This phrase that came from the play Othello and is used for a person who makes it very obvious what their feelings are. It’s thought to refer to the metal sleeve that a medieval knight would wear. Before a joust* it was common for knights to wear a handkerchief or fabric that belonged to a person that they were fond of.
The bane of someone’s existence – something that makes a person’s life miserable (often used ironically or as an exaggeration)
To coin – to be the first one to use a word
Punchline – the funny part of a joke (or, at least, the part where you understand it)
To stand the test of time – To last a long time
The Bard – A nickname for William Shakespeare
To stretch it – to exaggerate the truth
Joust – A medieval game where two knights on horseback ran at each other with long sticks or ‘lances’