Monday 5 December 2016

From 'fair game' to 'heart of gold' - top everyday words and phrases Shakespeare gave us

Before Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil, he left behind a plethora of words and phrases that we still use every day, writes John Meagher

Published 20/04/2016 | 07:00

Shakespeare
Shakespeare

The English language may have changed enormously in the 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, but it is remarkable just how many of the phrases we use unthinkingly today were first coined by The Bard.

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Even those who wouldn't dream of sitting through a Shakespeare play or reading one of his sonnets will have used a pattern of words that were first written by the dramatist and poet more than four centuries ago.

If you've ever told a 'knock knock' joke or said "fair play" to anyone, or if you've texted that "the game is up" or noted that a friend has a "heart of gold", you're unwittingly using phrases first seen in plays written by Shakespeare in an astonishingly creative 23-year period between 1590 and 1613.

It's a testament to the enormous popularity of his work that his words continue to have such popularity today. Clearly, certain turns of phrase had an impact on those who first heard them performed and as Shakespeare's texts became fundamental building blocks of English literature, they entered the vernacular and have remained there despite the fundamental shifts in the way we speak.

A death mask thought to be that of English dramatist William Shakespeare (1566 - 1616). Found by Dr Ludwig Becker in Mainz in 1849, the mask was linked to Shakespeare because of its 1616 date and its supposed facial resemblance to the writer. A rival theory, however, maintains that the mask is more likely to be that of English poet Ben Johnson
A death mask thought to be that of English dramatist William Shakespeare (1566 - 1616). Found by Dr Ludwig Becker in Mainz in 1849, the mask was linked to Shakespeare because of its 1616 date and its supposed facial resemblance to the writer. A rival theory, however, maintains that the mask is more likely to be that of English poet Ben Johnson

His impact on the English language was also greatly aided by Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, first published in 1755. Along with Johns Milton and Dryden, Shakespeare's turn of phrase were extensively used by Johnson and his dictionary helped shape the modern form of the language we know today.

Simon Winchester, who wrote a history of the Oxford English Dictionary, noted of its 18th century predecessor: "By the end of the [18th] century every educated household had, or had access to, the great book. So firmly established did it swiftly become that any request for 'The Dictionary' would bring forth Johnson and none other."

It's intriguing to read his celebrated phrases in the context they were first used. To use the examples quoted above, "Knock, knock! Who's there?" appears in Macbeth, and is used by a minor character, the Porter; "fair play" is uttered by Miranda, Prospero's daughter in The Tempest, when she was talking about the division of kingdoms; "the game is up" hails from one of his lesser-known plays, Cymbeline; and "heart of gold" was spoken in Henry V by a solider bearing the unusual moniker of Ancient Pistol - he appears in three separate Shakespeare plays.

His most celebrated play, Hamlet, delivers several of the most common phrases we use today. Even those who don't know the first thing about the Prince of Denmark or his famed - to literary scholars anyway - soliloquy on whether or not to take his own life are bound to use terms first employed in it.

"You've got to be cruel to be kind", "dog will have his day" and "pure as the driven snow" were first used in Hamlet. So too were "murder most foul", "this mortal coil" and "the lady doth protest too much".

Many of Shakespeare's best known phrases are used today in exactly the same way they were when he wrote them, including "you can't have too much of a good thing" from Othello and "neither rhyme nor reason" from As You Like It.

But others have been modified slightly to suit modern English. "The world's mine oyster" from The Merry Wives of Windsor is usually changed to "the world's my oyster", "all that glisters is not gold" normally employs "glistens" instead and "though this be madness, yet there is method in it", from Hamlet is typically abbreviated to "there's method in my madness".

In the course of his life, Shakespeare used in the region of one million words of text and more than 17,000 different words. He is credited with a remarkable 1,700 of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, joining words never before used together and adding prefixes and suffixes. He also devised words that had not been used before.

Among the words we use in everyday speech today, we can thank him for addiction (Othello), bedazzled (The Taming of the Shrew), cold-blooded (King John), fashionable (Troilus and Cressida), inaudible (All's Well That Ends Well), scuffle (Antony and Cleopatra) and uncomfortable (Romeo and Juliet).

Even some words that might appear to be 'street slang' or new English created in recent decades, hail from Shakespeare, including puking (As You Like It), swag, derived from swagger (Henry V), rant (Hamlet) and skim milk (Henry IV).

Oh, and the next time you 'grovel' or tell a 'barefaced' lie or talk about being 'jaded', you'll know that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon put all those words into the language too.

Irish Independent

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