Wednesday, October 28

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, October 28, 2015 10 comments
image by
William Shakespeare is considered a key transforming force in the English language. There are hundreds of words and phrases, particularly colorful idioms, he is believed to have coined. While scholars may squabble over which terms he invented and which ones were simply the slang of his day that he recorded for the first time, there's no doubt that his plays have hugely influenced our language.

Ask a teen to read Shakespeare, and they'll say his work is full of cliches, mostly because terms he first penned continue to be used so widely today. "Break the ice," "fancy-free," "in a pickle," "live long day," "neither rhyme nor reason," "night owl," "play fast and loose," "primrose path,"  "seen better days," "set my teeth on edge," "tongue-tied" are but a small sample of idioms we now use every day thanks to Shakespeare. (A comprehensive list is available here.)

But there are a number of his famous idioms that linger in our language with meanings and spellings that aren't particularly obvious in 2015, because they include archaic words one never hears outside these Shakespearean phrases. With each term, I give  the "eggcorn" version, a misheard or misunderstood incorrect variation. (For more on eggcorns, see The Eggcorn Database.) I also explain the phrase's meaning, giving special attention to the odd word you are likely to misspell.

bated breath (eggcorn: baited breath)
To hold one's breath in anticipation. Bated is a form of abate, to diminish or reduce.

much ado about nothing (eggcorn: much adieu)
Fuss, overreaction to something unimportant.

one fell swoop (eggcorn: one foul swoop)
Quickly arriving doom. Fell is an archaic term meaning deadly. The image is of a bird of prey attacking.

short shrift (eggcorn: short shift)
To make quick work of something or have little regard for it. Shrift is an archaic term that comes from shrive, to serve penance. The image is of being given an easy task to atone for sin, like reciting the Lord's Prayer once.

shuffle off this mortal coil (eggcorn: mortal toil)
To die.  Coil/coyle in this era meant trouble, strife. The image is of drifting away from the struggles of life.

Other archaic idioms you might be misspelling

Shakespeare was neither the first nor the last to give us lasting idioms that include archaic words. Here are some others to be aware of, some first appearing as early as Chaucer (1343-1400), some only a century and a half ago.

damp squib (eggcorn version damp squid)
Something that flops or fails to work as expected. Literally, a dud firework because it got wet.

derring do (eggcorn: daring do)
Heroic daring.
Possibly coined by Chaucer. More on origins here

high dudgeon (eggcorn: high dungeon)
Might come from Welsh, or might derive from the term for a knife handle first recorded decades before Shakespeare's plays. More on origins here.

on tenterhooks (eggcorn: on tenderhooks)
In suspense. The image is of woolen cloth stretched on a special rack (tenter) after washing to prevent shrinkage.

vale of tears (eggcorn: veil of tears)
Deep suffering. Vale is a derivative of valley.

Which of these idioms have plagued you most? Do you try to coin idioms in your work? Any favorite Shakespeare quote you'd like to share? 


  1. What an interesting post. I didn't realize so many of these what we now term cliches came from Shakespeare.

    1. They've been reused so much because they communicate well in a few words. Sadly, that's how things become cliche, overuse.

  2. Yuppers. Got to love Shakespeare (and others). I pretty much avoid idioms for fear of being labeled cliche.

    1. According to Wikipedia there are over 25,000 English idioms, so avoiding these set phrases that include figurative use of some words would require you to jettison an awful lot of the language. What's more fun is when a writer can take an existing idiom and twist it, or come up with new expressions that colorfully say something in just a few words.

  3. Love this because I love Shakespeare. I'm a big of Bard fan-girl. :) I even had an artistic rendering of him on my wall in college.
    Although Much Ado About Nothing is one of my favorite plays, I did some digging later on when I was using it to teach and discovered that "nothing" could stand for "noting" which could have a pretty bad slang meaning in Shakespeare's day. Knowing that the Bard could often be bawdy, it wouldn't surprise me if his "Nothing" was a bit of a double entendre.
    I had the chance to see The Comedy of Errors performed a second time just a few weeks go, and I felt like I was in a slice of Shakespeare-humor heaven.

    Favorite Quote . . . hmm, there are too many, but how about:

    "I see, lady, the gentleman is not in your books."
    - William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, 1.1

    "Let's go hand in hand, not one before the another."
    The Comedy of Errors -- Act V, Scene I

    1. You picked some good ones. Much Ado has some of the best witty repartee between a male and female lead anywhere in literature. I'm lucky to live in a city that has an amazing outdoor Shakespeare troupe, so I've seen at least seven plays there, plus worked crew on Twelfth Night and Measure for Measure in college, and have seen a bunch of other productions all over, including the National Theatre in London (Cymbelline) and the Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Theatre (Othello). I'm weirdly fond the the Henriad (Henry IV 1 & 2 and Henry V). Three cheers for the Bard!

  4. Love these idioms! Derring do is one I'd probably have to double check, to make sure I'd gotten it right.

    1. There are a number of idioms that contain archaic words that are sometimes called "fossil words" like "kith" from kith and kin, and "fro" in to and fro. It was read up on the phenomenon to write this.

  5. My Mom used many of these when I was growing up, and I passed a few on to my kids. I enjoy learning more about idioms and where many such things originated. Thanks for this fun and informative post! :)

    1. New idioms are being coined everyday, but not all will stick around for long. So many of Shakespeare's stuck with us because they're creative and bring up a strong image when you hear them. But in another century some of these phrases will disappear as fewer know what the fossil works inside them mean.