Welcome to The Mad Logophile. Here, we explore words; their origins, evolution, usage. Words are alive. Words are born, they change and, sometimes, they die. They are our principal tool for communicating with one another. There are over one million words in the English language yet only an estimated 171,476 words are in common current use. As a logophile, I enjoy discovering new words, using them and learning about their origins. Please join in.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears... or eyes. William Shakespeare was indeed a prolific author. But few realize just how much of what he wrote in the 17th century is still with us today. Tonight, we will delves into the profound influence the Bard had on our language.

A couple of weeks ago my husband and I were watching Hamlet as performed brilliantly by the Royal Shakespearean Company. We began noticing how frequently we heard words and phrases that are still in use. There are rather a lot in Hamlet; 99 from what I've been able to find. That's when the theme for this weeks' TML was decided upon.
In all of his works - plays, sonnets, narrative poems - Shakespeare used about 17,000 words. Of these, around 1,700 are words he either coined or used in a different sense. I've thought about how to present the words and have concluded that there really isn't any other way (that will keep this diary within bounds) other than a list. It's impossible for me to trace which word comes from which source (I looked but there was no love) so I'll have to rely on you guys. This is, of course, a much abbreviated list...

accommodation (as a variation of accommodations)
addiction (in the sense of tendency)
aerial (meaning "of the air")
batty (meaning "bat-like")
to bedazzle
to besmirch
to castigate
to cater (as "to purvey food")
cheap (in the pejorative sense)
to comply
to dishearten
East Indies
to educate
to enmesh
gallantry (meaning "gallant people")
glow (as a noun)
hint (as a noun)
to misquote
to outgrow
to pander
pedant (referring to a schoolmaster)
to puke
in question (as in "the___ in question")
to rant
shipwrecked (he spelled it "ship-wrackt")
shooting star
to torture
uncomfortable (in the sense of disquieting)
to unhand (as in "unhand me!")


Now we can delve into the phrases that the Bard introduced. Luckily I was able to find them listed by play. I say "luckily" because the context is important. Let's begin with the play that has the most common phrases, the play that sparked this theme, Hamlet. I found 47 quotes that we still use from this play (I told you they came fast and furious) but we can't do them all so I'll stick to the best known/used ones.

We often say "Brevity is the soul of wit" without the sarcasm of its original context. Polonius, the least witty and most long-winded character in the play, says this at the beginning of a rambling dissertation on his spying activities.

When we say "hoist with his own petard," we might be thinking of someone run through with his own weapon. But a petard is more like a mine and to be hoist with it would indicate that it blew the speaker sky high. Hamlet uses this in reference to Claudius' plan to have Hamlet killed in England.

"In my mind's eye" refers to something we imagine, which we see in our own mind. Hamlet, being an imaginative fellow, uses this term in speaking of his Father, whom he sees in his own memories.
Polonius again, as an aside to the audience as Hamlet rattles on. He believes the Prince to be mad, yet senses a kind of artfulness and order in his speech and says, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." We have toyed with it a bit and now speak of a method to one's madness."

It's all in how one looks at a thing, as Hamlet puts it, "... there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

When we say, "something is rotten in the state of Denmark", we are being metaphorical. Certainly, we mean, something may be rotten but not necessarily in Denmark.

The phrase, "the lady doth protest too much, methinks" is almost always misquoted as "methinks, etc." We also do not usually mean it in an ironic sense as Gertrude most certainly did. "Protest" has changed meanings somewhat since Hamlet was written. Then, it meant to vow or solemnly swear. When we use this phrase, we mean that the lady objects so much that she has lost credibility. Gertrude meant that she affirms too much and so loses credibility.

The primrose path is often used to refer to a path of luxury, the primrose being identified with youth and its attendant appetites. Ophelia says to her brother, Laertes, that he should avoid the libertine lifestyle while he is in Paris.

While some of us believe in spirits and so forth, others do not. When faced with his friend Horatio's disbelief, Hamlet admonished him, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Horatio is a man of reason and rationality and this whole ghost business is a bit much for him. This passage is used in much the same way today.

Arguably the most famous monologue in Western literature, Hamlet's soliloquy in Act 3, Scene 1 gives us a few phrases that are in wide use. The opening line, "To be or not to be," is often seen as a question about suicide. But, if you look at Hamlet's character, it is more of a meditation on being (doing nothing) and not being (taking action). Death, Hamlet muses, is "to sleep, perchance to dream" sleep being a wished for state but, "oh what dreams may come" and make the hereafter a scary unknown. When we leave "this mortal coil" we leave this crazy mortal sphere for "the undiscovere'd country, from whose bourn no traveller returns." A bourn is a limit or boundary so Hamlet is referring to the land where we travel after death.

The object of many a contentious argument among scholars, "what a piece of work is man" can be seen two different ways. It may be that Hamlet is being sarcastic and, in context, that can be argued. Others think that Hamlet is waxing eloquent on how wonderful a creation man is. What do you think?


Macbeth, having just killed King Duncan, calls his bloodied hands "a sorry sight." He is using "sorry" in all of its permutations: regrettable, tragic, sorrowful, wretched... The way we use it nowadays is much weaker.

Perhaps the best known quotes from Macbeth are recited by the Three Wyrd Sisters. "Double, double, toil and trouble/fire burn and cauldron bubble..." is part of their incantation. Often misquoted as "bubble, bubble.." it is, in fact, the Witches aiming to double the toil and trouble around them. Even with that mistake, we often use it to describe (or invoke?) what they were striving for; lots of trouble and strife. In a later incantation, we hear a list of the ingredients of their cauldron, among them are, "...eye of newt and toe of frog...". These are actually folk names of certain herbs and show that Shakespeare really did his homework on this. Now, we use these ingredients as stereotypical of a make-believe witch's brew.

When we use "one fell swoop" we usually mean all at once. When hearing of the murder of his wife and children, MacDuff is disbelieving and asks if this is true, that they were all killed in one fell swoop. He means this in the old sense of "fell" (swift, deadly). The phrase, as used by Shakespeare uses all meanings of "fell": Macbeth falls upon MacDuff's family; in a fierce and deadly way to cut them down.

Used by Ray Bradbury as the title of his wonderful book, "Something wicked this way comes," has become much more common because of him. In Macbeth, the something wicked is the title character as he nears the cave of the Three Wyrd Sisters. I have to tell you this anecdote... one night my Hubby was muttering in his sleep and I (as usual) was wide awake. At one point, he turned over onto his back and said very clearly, "By the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes." Really. I was so freaked out that I punched his arm to wake him up and ask, "WTF was THAT?!" But he couldn't remember. I still tease him about it.

We use "the be-all and end-all" a couple of ways, neither of which really captures the same meaning as did Macbeth. While pondering whether or not he should kill Duncan, Macbeth wonders if that act "Might be the be-all and the end-all..." of what he has to do and afterward suffer. To us, a be-all or end-all is the a paragon or an extreme or an all-consuming project or passion. Macbeth would like his deed to be limited, while we admire a nearly unlimited excellence, or a passion without bounds.

Lady Macbeth, like Glenn Beck, sees the milk of human kindness to be a distasteful thing. So, when we use it as a positive, we are completely opposite of the original context. Lady Macbeth worries that her husband is too compassionate to actually be able to murder Duncan. She's very ambitious and by her own admission would to smash the brains out of her own child if she had to, just to further her fortunes. She must have been a Republican.

One thing that Lady Macbeth tells her husband that hasn't changed meaning down through the years... She tells him as he obsesses over his murder of Duncan, "Things without all remedy/Should be without regard: what's done, is done." Not much help, really, it turns out.


When we say, "a dish fit for the gods" we mean something that is delicious. But, in Julius Caesar, that is definitely not what Brutus had in mind. The dish is Caesar himself and Brutus likens his assassination to a dish in which Caesar is the main ingredient. Eeeww.

If someone were to say to you, "Beware the ides of March," you might well accept that as a metaphor for a reckoning. Caesar, on being told by a soothsayer to beware this date, ignored the warning to his peril.

They may be the three most famous words in literature; "et tu, Brute?" These words uttered by Caesar as he lay dying are still seen as the ultimate expression of betrayal by a close friend.
In convincing Brutus to help the assassins, Cassius tells him, "Men at some time are masters of their fates; The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves." Here, he is telling Brutus that fate will not stop Caesar. It is up to them to control their own (and his) destiny. Both "masters of their/our own fate(s)" and "the fault... is in ourselves" are still in use today with the same meanings.

Caesar's friend Marc Antony, in his private rage, envisions his late friend (along with the Goddess of strife) as gaining vengeance on the conspirators. Caesar's ghost (oh look, another one!) will "Cry 'Havoc!' and let slip the dogs of war." The dogs are a personification of war. We use this phrase to indicate a readiness to call down destruction. Hopefully, we are being metaphorical when we do so.  

Marc Antony's speech at Caesar's funeral is a brilliant piece of sarcasm. In it, he turns an elegy for Caesar into a character assassination of Brutus. That man, Antony says, committed "the most unkindest cut of all." Here, he means that a killing blow was compounded with ingratitude,and that Brutus' betrayal was as deadly as the blade. The meaning has softened since Shakespeare's time but still essentially speaks to adding insult to injury. The grammar wasn't so heinous back then ;)


In Romeo and Juliet, they are described as "A pair of star-cross'd lovers..." Star-crossed here means opposed by the stars, as they are seen to control the lives of men. Even then, it was still thought that the Heavens had control over the affairs of the world. Shakespeare meant that the lovers had Fate against them. Even though we don't believe that the stars control us, we still used the term when speaking of couples from two different worlds.

The idea of two "houses" or families feuding is a common theme even up to today. The two in this play are the Capulets and Montagues, but they could just as easily be two different races or classes (see West Side Story). But the feuding impacts more than just the families, as Romero's friend Mercutio learns. As he dies, he shouts, "A plague a' both your houses!" We might use the same phrase in a more flippant manner but we still mean pretty much the same; Damn you all for your stupid feud.

We are probably being silly if we, on taking leave, say "...parting is such sweet sorrow." But Juliet was being completely serious when she sends Romeo away. She also, on the occasion of this balcony scene, wishes him a thousand times goodnight. Other quotes from this scene which we still use in one way or another include, "what light by yonder window breaks?", "what's in a name? a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" and "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?" (which means WHY are you Romeo and my sworn enemy, not WHERE are you?).


The plays above constitute the majority of famous sayings from Shakespeare's plays. These plays each have a few:

Othello, the brave Moor of Venice, fell under the spell of Iago, his junior officer. His jealousy is his downfall, as well as the death of his lady, Desdemona. Iago convinces Othello that the dreams of Cassio about her present a "foregone conclusion" of their adulterous act. As Othello uses it, this means that the act led to the dreams, quite the opposite of the way we use it today.

In his dying soliloquy, Othello says that he "lov'd not wisely but too well." Many believe this to be disingenuous as he obviously loved too jealously, that being his greatest sin. Though we may not believe Othello, we tend to take modern users of this phrase at their word.

Thanks to Othello, we have probably the most colorful description of jealousy; "the green-eyed monster." We also have a colorful (in another sense) description of coitus in "the beast with two backs."

The villain of King Lear, Edmund, says of his deeds, "The wheel is come full circle..." He means it in much the same way as we still use it: a completed cycle.

When we come upon something we don't wish to see, hear or do, we may joke, "that way madness lies" but we don't mean it literally. Not so for poor King Lear who has spent most of the play on that journey. It's funny that after he's spent so long obsessing over his daughter's behavior, he would now (Act 3, Scene 4) tell himself "O, that way madness lies; let me shun that; No more of that. Um, too late, Lear old buddy.

A figurative way to describe a harsh demand or spiteful penalty, "a pound of flesh" comes from The Merchant of Venice. But we may not know or recall that Shylock does not get his payment on Antonio's default of a loan because Portia, disguised as a judge, finds a clever legal run-around. But we still use the term for the consequences of defaulting on a bargain.

Though we misquote it, we often remind ourselves of the true worth of something with the axiom, "all that glitters is not gold." The Prince of Morocco attempts to gain fair Portia's hand by choosing from 3 boxes, one of which holds her picture; gold, silver and lead. His choice of the gold one gains him only the chastisement that "All that glisters is not gold." No Portia for him.

When Antonio comes to Shylock to borrow money, Shylock asks whether, after Antonio's previous treatment of him, he should now bow and scrape and make like Antonio's bondsman: "Shall I bend low and in a bondman's key,With bated breath and whisp'ring humbleness..." In this case, bated means hushed, diminished or quiet (as in abate). "With bated breath" means, then, in a hushed voice. We adopted the term as being with the breath held.

In Richard III, the title character tricks Hastings into declaring that anyone who practices witchcraft must be executed. Then Richard accuses him of devilish deeds and demands, "Off with his head!" Of course, we say this nowadays in jest... usually.

A confusing idiom, "short shrift" can mean either quick work or not enough time. Both come indirectly from the Bard. In this, shrift means confession (from shrive). To make a short shrift then, meant to make a brief confession. We use it now as something one is given; to "give short shrift" is simply to allot small consideration to a person or idea. In Richard III, Hastings is advised by Ratcliffe to "make short shrift" as Hastings execution is holding up Richard's dinner.

The phrase "brave new world" was an ordinary Shakespeareanism until Aldous Huxley put it on the map with his 1932 novel. From Miranda in The Tempest, we get this phrase. As she sees the men shipwrecked on the island her and her father Prospero live on, she declares them "brave" in the sense it was meant then - noble and handsome. Prospero knows otherwise...

Politics, we often say, can make strange bedfellows. The jester Trinculo, caught in a storm, can only find shelter under the cloak of the islander Caliban (Prospero's manservant). "Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows," he says. Strange, in Shakespeare's day could mean foreign, unknown, or odd. We usually employ it in the latter sense and have made it more metaphorical.

"All the world's a stage," says Jaques in As You Like It, "And all the men and women merely players..." This notion was already trite when Shakespeare wrote this so it's meant to be somewhat pretentious here. The character is making a set speech (meant to sound practiced),  title=something given as an oratory, much as we might quote Hamlet's soliloquy at a party. We only use the first part, "all the world's a stage" when we use it now.

One of the authentic bawdy puns from the Bard, "too much of a good thing" is a neat double entendre. "Thing" was a euphemism for either male or female genitalia in his time and it is a very suggestive Rosalind who asks Orlando, "Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?" Maybe we all should have stayed innocent of what this actually meant, as we tend to use it literally.

Even if you're not a Pagan, you've probably heard of cakes and ale. In Twelfth Night, this is used by Sir Toby as indicative of the good things in life: Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale? he asks Malvolio. Cakes, in this use, means a fancy or sweetened bread, not cake as we know it today. Malvloio is a prig and would prefer to make everyone else adhere to his brand of virtue, something Sir Toby refuses to do. Today we often use the phrase in much the same way - unless you are a Pagan. To us, this is a part of our ritual and is analogous to the Eucharist (which was indeed, adapted from older Pagan rites).

Another common phrase brought to us by Sir Toby Belch is hob nob. Before this, "hab nab" had been in use for over half a century, having probably evolved from "have" into "hab" and it's negation, "nab." Shakespeare's use of it, Hob, nob, is his word; give't or take't, reads as "give it or take it." Through gentrification, it became a drinking phrase (trading tastes of one another's drink) and, finally, to our current use of a confab.

The sixteenth century version of LOL also arises from Twelfth Night, as Maria tells Toby of the hilarious sight of Malvolio acting like a lovestruck twit. She tells him, If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourselves into stitches, follow me. Of course, our spleen has nothing to do with it, but hilarity, in Renaissance physiology, was thought to reside in the spleen. Stitches meant originally, a stab with a sharp implement and we still use this literal sense today. But this kind of stitch comes from laughing heartily and it means the same now when we laugh so hard we are in stitches. Or ROFLing.

To be dramatic, we may sometimes quote Puck: Lord, what fools these mortals be! Of course, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he is speaking of the serious silliness of the four lovers that he and Oberon are observing. This phrase is seldom used in everyday conversation but we like to throw it out now and then. And while not everyone will know its origin and original context, they will know that it's Shakespearean.

Lysander, one of those four lovers, points out to another of the quartet, Hermia, that "... The course of true love never did run smooth." This is in reference to their situation, as Hermia must marry another as ordered by her Father. When we say this nowadays, we mean much the same thing, perhaps without the commands of a parent.

In Antony and Cleopatra, the latter speaks of her "salad days." No, she doesn't mean when she ate salad, but rather when she was like one; green and cold. Which is to say she was naive and passionless. Many use it now to describe times of youthful innocence and indulgence or of the romantic poverty of having to subsist on such a diet. In Shakespeare's time, salad meant any raw vegetable so Cleopatra is calling her affair with Caesar a result of her earlier inexperience and gullibility.

Something that makes no sense may be said to have "neither rhyme nor reason." This phrase pops up in a few of the Bard's plays but it is used in the sense that we do today in his earliest comedy, The Comedy Of Errors.

Sometimes, you may catch a pretentious writer using the phrase, "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." Before you roll your eyes, recall where this came from, Henry IV Pt. II. When he opines with this, Henry is suffering from insomnia. He thinks that everyone but he can easily nod off. But he, tired, sick, guilty, and beset by rebellion, cannot. The use of this phrase today is not common but it is certainly one of Shakespeare's most well-known.

Though we often reverse the words when we say it, "the better part of valor is discretion," means much the same thing today. In Henry VI, Pt. I, Falstaff is using it to rationalize his playing dead to avoid the real thing.

Henry V is probably best remembered for its St. Crispian Day's speech. In it, the King is rousing his troops outside Agincourt. He tells his troops that victory will bring a kind of immortality, because the names of the heroes will become as familiar as "household words." He meant, as we do today, that their names will become common and often used. His speech assures them that, in a kind of reverse elitism, outside of a battle, people are just people. Henry, and those who heard his speech, are seeing the distinction of the hero. Today, we have expanded the meaning to include anything of which we commonly speak.

In Henry VI, Pt. II, Shakespeare makes a funny. In the scene from which it comes, the villainous Cade envisions a quasi-communistic social revolution, with himself installed as autocrat. Adding his own vision of better place, the butcher Dick, cries out, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." In his day, as well as in ours, lawyers have a bad reputation as paper shufflers. Of course, when we say this today, we are only trying to be funny, right? Right?

Usually used as an interjection today, "for goodness sake" was literal in Henry VIII. It is used twice, once in the Prologue (Therefore, for goodness sake, and as you are known The first and happiest hearers of the town, Be sad, as we would make ye) and by Cardinal Woolsey in his admonition to Queen Katherine (For goodness sake, consider what you do). In both cases, Shakespeare means "for the sake of goodness and decency." As this phrase became more common, it lost its literal force and became a simple interjection.

"What the dickens!" is an oath referring, not to the author, but to the Devil. It may derive from a common English surname or as a diminutive of Dick. Why? etymologists are unsure, but it could simply be for comic effect. It comes to us from The Merry Wives Of Windsor as exactly the same as we use it today: "I cannot tell what the dickens his name is..."

The word reputation, as we know it today dates only from the mid-Sixteenth century, and "spotless reputation" seems to originate in Richard II. Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, who has been accused of treason, speaks eloquently of on the worth and dignity of Man: "... The purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation—that away, Men are but gilded loam, or painted clay...."

One of the Bard's lesser known plays, Troilus and Cressida gives us the phrase, "good riddance." Though it was written with an "a," which was eventually dropped. In this case, Patroclus, a Greek warrior and friend to Achilles, expresses relief as the rogue Thersites departs. When Patroclus says, "A good riddance," he means exactly what we do; glad you're leaving, don't let the door hit ya!


This is but a fraction of the words and phrases that Shakespeare coined. There is, of course, no way to fit them all in one diary so I leave it up to you to fill any gaps. There are, too, many quotable lines from the Bard's work but I have tried to keep this to ones that we commonly use. Oh, but the great quotes are truly great:

"The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool." - As You Like It

"Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once." - Julius Caesar

"Have more than thou showest, speak less than thou knowest, lend less than thou owest." - King Lear

"Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them." - Twelfth Night

And, if you feel up to it, take a quizabout Shakespeare and his works.

"Welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing."

Originally posted to The Way The Wind Blows on Sun May 23, 2010 at 05:09 PM PDT.

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