Shakespeare's Coined Words Now Common Currency

Jennifer Vernon
for National Geographic News
April 22, 2004

While William Shakespeare died 388 years ago this week, the English playwright and poet lives on not only through his writings, but through the words and sayings attributed to him that still color the English language today.

So whether you are "fashionable" or "sanctimonious," thank Shakespeare, who likely coined the terms.

Many of the Bard's verbal gems have been compiled in books like Michael Macrone's Brush Up Your Shakespeare, and Coined by Shakespeare by Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless.

For those with an axe to grind, Shakespeare's Insults: Educating Your Wit by Wayne F. Hill and Cynthia J. Ottchen serves up the best in Elizabethan retorts. (Count a "fool in good clothes" among the choice insults.)

Some may be shocked to learn just how great Shakespeare's sway on everyday sayings has been. Take, for example, these phrases from Brush Up Your Shakespeare:

• Eaten out of house and home
• Pomp and circumstance
• Foregone conclusion
• Full circle
• The makings of
• Method in the madness
• Neither rhyme nor reason
• One fell swoop
• Seen better days
• It smells to heaven
• A sorry sight
• A spotless reputation
• Strange bedfellows
• The world's (my) oyster

According to Macrone's research, some of these sayings have strayed slightly from their original meaning once taken out of the context of the plays in which they first appeared. Others have veered off the path altogether.

Such is the case with "sweets to the sweet." Today the phrase connotes an amorous gesture. Yet originally Hamlet's mother spoke the words in the Shakespeare play to describe funeral flowers.

Another example is the modern-day saying "in my heart of hearts." Shakespeare's Hamlet actually used the phrase "in my heart of heart," to refer to his heart's center. This does make more sense: as Macrone points out, it is rather amusing to hear someone imply he or she has multiple hearts when using the phrase as it is known today.

Claims to Coinage

Despite Shakespeare's apparently considerable contributions to the language, Macrone and other academics are quick to caution that it is almost impossible say with absolutely certainty when a word or phrase was first used—or even whom to credit for creating it.

In Shakespeare's case, many of the words and phrases attributed to him merely debuted in their modern permutations in his writings and can actually be traced back to older forms. Other words and turns of phrase are indeed "original," insomuch as they are documented in the written record only as far back as Shakespeare.

Continued on Next Page >>


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