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10 Modern-Day Phrases Unexpectedly Introduced by Shakespeare

by Selme Angulo
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

How many words have you invented in your lifetime? No, we’re not talking about baby blabber that you might have incoherently pushed out as an infant. We mean real, actual words used by the masses today. If you’re anything like us, the simple answer to that question is probably “zero.” But don’t fret! It isn’t easy to come up with a word or phrase that is adopted by the general public and used by many.

Well, it’s difficult for everybody except William Shakespeare, that is. The English playwright is credited by various sources with inventing 1,600 to 1,700 words and countless more phrases and euphemisms that are still in use today. He totally changed the lexicon of the English language while he was writing his impactful plays. And those changes are still felt by modern English people, Americans, and English speakers worldwide.

Don’t believe us? Read on, then! In this list, we’ll take a look at ten phrases credited to Shakespeare that are in common use in the modern era. If you’ve ever thought, “Why do we say that?” or “I wonder where that comes from,” the answer to your query may just be in this list!

Related: 10 Shakespeare Authorship Theories That Will Surprise You

10 The Mic Drop of Phrases

Three English Phrases from Shakespeare’s Macbeth

We’ve all heard and likely used the phrase “be all and end all.” It refers to the most important part of something or the reason for something. When you say anything referencing the “be all and end all” in a conversation, it means that alternatives are out, and the final say has been given. Point-blank, period. You get the picture! Well, in 1605’s Macbeth, Shakespeare was the one who first painted that picture.

While the titular character is contemplating the potential assassination of King Duncan of Scotland within the play, he is left to consider the potential consequences of that murderous act both in this life and the next one. So Macbeth says, “If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly. If th’ assassination could trammel up the consequence, and catch with his surcease, success: that but this blow might be the be-all and the end-all.”

Of course, as anyone familiar with Macbeth rightly knows, the assassination plot is very much not a “be all and end all” for the play’s eponymous lead. But that’s neither here nor there for our purposes in this list. The point is that Shakespeare’s Macbeth was inspired to put forth a violent act of finality against King Duncan. That it didn’t turn out that way is Macbeth’s problem. That it gave the modern world a wonderfully coined phrase is our privilege![1]

9 Making Milk Moves

Henry IV (Shakespeare) – Full performance | 2017

In Act II, Scene III of Henry IV, Shakespeare coined a phrase that we now take as second nature when it comes to nutrition: skim milk! Of course, skim milk (known also in some English-speaking places as “skimmed milk”) is made by removing all the cream from the milk. Humans have been drinking beverages in that vein for quite some time. Ancient Romans and Greeks—and plenty of other civilizations around the world—have long known of skim milk and various variants throughout history. But we can credit Shakespeare for creating the term as we know it today!

In that Henry IV scene, the character Hotspur references “skim milk” to create a metaphor about a person of weak character. Slamming a nobleman for not supporting his rebellion against the king, Hotspur hotly delivers the line: “O, I could divide myself and go to buffets, for moving such a dish of skim milk with so honourable an action! Hang him! Let him tell the king: we are prepared. I will set forward tonight.”

And there you have it! Though it’s not the literal act of making skim milk, Shakespeare’s terminology stuck. Now, we use the two-word phrase to explain the process of allowing raw milk to sit and separate from its accompanying cream. At this point, one simply skims the cream away and is left with the un-creamed milk. But in the playwright’s case, that “skim” action is a metaphorical reference to Hotspur’s target lacking character and backbone. There are levels to this Shakespeare stuff![2]

8 In Cold Blood (or Hot!)

King John by The MIT Shakespeare Ensemble

Shakespeare was a true pioneer when it came to analyzing emotions through the supposed temperature of one’s blood. We take it for granted nowadays when we refer to somebody as “hot-blooded” if they are quick to anger or have a touchy temper. On the flip side, a “cold-blooded” act is one of cruel and villainous evil. The idioms have touched all facets of modern life in the English-speaking world; take Truman Capote’s stunning true crime novel In Cold Blood and many more as instances of blood temperature being used to gauge emotion.

Well, Capote and the rest of us have William Shakespeare to thank for that. Several times across multiple different plays did the iconic playwright experiment with blood-as-emotion references. For example, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, the character Falstaff exclaims, “The Windsor bell hath struck twelve; the minute draws on. Now, the hot-blooded gods assist me!” Then, in King Lear, the titular character himself specifically calls out a “hot-blooded France” amid talk of war.

And the blood didn’t just boil in the playwright’s pen. It cooled off, too. When Shakespeare wrote King John, he had the play’s infamous widow Constance berate another character, Limoges, as a “cold-blooded slave” when he appeared emotionless and sullen before her. From then to now, the blood still boils (and cools) just as it did in the merry old days of England’s most famous writer![3]

7 What’s in a Name?

How Did Shakespeare Create The Name Jessica?

William Shakespeare came up with the name Jessica. This one sounds almost too ridiculous to be true, but it’s definitely legit. The first-ever recorded instance of the name “Jessica” ever being documented or written down in any way was in Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. In that production, Jessica was the well-known daughter of the famous moneylender Shylock.

Historians aren’t entirely sure of where Shakespeare got the name, but they have at least one solid lead. Considering the fact that Shylock is a Jewish character, experts on the English playwright have pointed to the Biblical name “Iscah” as a possible source. In Hebrew, “Iscah” means “vision” or “sight.” It’s very possible that Shakespeare took the Hebrew name, anglicized it a bit, and dressed it up for theatergoers.

Of course, we highly doubt Shakespeare expected Jessica to be such a common name in the modern era. And most modern moms and dads who choose to name their kid Jessica almost certainly have no idea it goes back to The Merchant of Venice. They likely just think it’s a nice-sounding and relatively “normal” name for this day and age. So, if you ever meet Jessica Biel, Jessica Simpson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jessica Alba, or Jessica Chastain, you now have the perfect intro to make an impression![4]

6 Beware of Wild Geese!

🎭 Wild-goose chase – Learn English vocabulary & idioms with ‘Shakespeare Speaks’

The first known use of the phrase “wild goose chase” was a Shakespeare creation—and in one of his most famous works, no less. In Romeo and Juliet, the famous Mercutio at one point banters in a series of rapid-fire jokes with his pal Romeo. During their back-and-forth, Mercutio utters this line: “If thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.” And with that, the wild goose chase of the modern era was born! Well, sort of.

After Shakespeare first used the term in Romeo and Juliet, the phrase initially came to mean a kind of race—usually a horse race—in which racers would follow the leader in a weaving, unpredictable pursuit that Shakespeare felt looked like a flock of wild geese flying frantically. Those races were often futile for the followers, though, with the leaders very often winning wire-to-wire. So the frustrating lack of results came to dominate the meaning behind the idiom “wild goose chase” as it developed through the years.

As we all know well, that phrase today means taking on a futile endeavor and searching high and low for something with little hope of actually finding it. So the modern “wild goose chase,” as it’s used today, has been slightly altered from Shakespeare’s day. Nevertheless, the playwright was still the first to coin the phrase and set it on its path to the current era.[5]

5 What a Late Night Hoot!

The Rape of Lucrece by William Shakespeare

Like many playwrights then and now, Shakespeare often employed imagery and references to animals. That in and of itself isn’t weird or uncommon at all. And even in many of the most basic cases in his plays, Shakespeare’s comparisons were as straightforward as could be. Take, for example, the play Richard II. At one point in that creation, Shakespeare writes that “for night-owls shriek where mounting larks should sing.” That’s a very standard (and not at all metaphorical) reference to owls that do their hunting and roaming at night.

But wait! Shakespeare also got more creative with the use of “night owl” as an idiom. Looking for a more metaphorical move, the playwright brought back the animal reference later on in his poem “The Rape of Lucrece.” However, this time around, he was not referring to the actual owl itself; he was talking about a person who burns the so-called midnight oil!

Writing in the poem, Shakespeare delivered this line: “This said, his guilty hand pluck’d up the latch, and with his knee the door he opens wide. The dove sleeps fast that this night-owl will catch: thus treason works ere traitors be espied.” The after-sundown idiom stuck, and now we all likely know a person or two who works best as a night owl.[6]

4 Critics Critiquing Content

David Tennant Explains Why Shakespeare Still Matters

In Act III, Scene I of Shakespear’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, the lovesick character Berowne casts his own personal judgment upon his not-so-positive past behavior. Lamenting the man who he has become, the forlorn and downtrodden character says: “I, that have been love’s whip; A very beadle to a humorous sigh; A critic, nay, a night-watch constable; A domineering pedant o’er the boy; Than whom no mortal so magnificent!”

That middle line in that stanza, where Berowne denounces his life as “a critic, nay, a night-watch constable,” is the key one here. The word “critic” itself far predates Shakespeare. It actually comes from Middle French and the word “critique,” which was adopted by the French via the Latin “criticus.” Before that, it was a Greek word, “kritikos,” which roughly translates to being “able to make judgments.” And that word was born from another, earlier Greek word, “krinein,” which was a verb meaning “to decide” or “to separate.”

All that is to say that the idea of “critiquing” something was not a new concept in the time of Shakespeare. However, taking the verb form of the world and flipping it to a noun—and to the title of a job—was very new. In Shakespeare’s play here, Berowne laments his past role as a man whose specific job was analyzing and critiquing plays, playwrights, actors, and actresses. Shakespeare himself dealt with plenty of critics in his life and certainly after his death. So perhaps it should make perfect sense that he coined this word for the gig![7]

3 Eyes on the Prize

A Midsummer Night’s Dream • Act 3 Scene 2 • Shakespeare at Play

Shakespeare liked to create new words out of combining two seemingly disparate and seeing what resulted. A great example of this is a very simple word we take for granted as being completely standard and logical now: eyeball. That’s right! In the late 16th century, Shakespeare brought something so seemingly simple as “eyeball” into the popular lexicon.

Now, to be fair to the actual creator of the term, virtually all historians today can agree that Shakespeare did not invent the word combo. Other writers were using “eyeball” as early as 1580. But other writers were not nearly as popular then or now as this beloved playwright, so Shakespeare’s use in two different plays immediately and fully popularized the term.

First, just before 1600, Shakespeare used the term with memorable effect in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as such: “Then crush this herb into Lysander’s eye, whose liquor hath this virtuous property, to take from thence all error with his might, and make his eyeballs roll with wonted sight.” And then a few years later, in The Tempest, Prospero is speaking to the spirit Ariel when the word is next uttered: “Go make thyself like a nymph o’ the sea: be subject to no sight but thine and mine; invisible to every eyeball else.”[8]

2 Green with Envy

🎭 The green-eyed monster – Learn English vocabulary & idioms with ‘Shakespeare Speaks’

Shakespeare didn’t invent the concept of jealousy, of course. That’s gone back far into the ages and has been a known emotion by far too many lovers scorned through the eons. But Shakespeare is generally recognized as the first to connect jealousy and envy to the idea of one being “green.”

This first came about in The Merchant of Venice just before 1600. In that play, the playwright had the character Portia say, “How all the other passions fleet to air, As doubtful thoughts, and rash-embraced despair, and shuddering fear, and green-eyed jealousy! O love, be moderate; allay thy ecstasy, in measure rein thy joy; scant this excess. I feel too much thy blessing: make it less, for fear I surfeit.”

Then, a few years later, in 1604, Shakespeare wrote one of his most famous works of all time: Othello. In the play, the Englishman had the character Iago speak as such: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger; But, O, what damned minutes tells he o’er who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!”

Nowadays, it’s expected to connect jealousy to the color green. The idiom “green with envy” is commonly used in the English-speaking world. Thanks, Shakespeare![9]

1 That’s Wacky… uh, Zany!

From Zany to Unreal: Words Shakespeare Created

In Act V, Scene II of Love’s Labour’s Lost, the character Berowne recites the following lines about the unfortunate discovery of one of his would-be love tricks, “See the trick on’t: here was a consent, knowing aforehand of our merriment, to dash it like a Christmas comedy: some carry-tale, some please-man, some slight zany, some mumble-news, some trencher-knight, some Dick, that smiles his cheek in years and knows the trick, to make my lady laugh when she’s disposed, told our intents before; which once disclosed, the ladies did change favours: and then we, following the signs, woo’d but the sign of she.”

That’s quite a long quote from which to pull, but the explanation behind the use of “zany” is actually pretty simple. In fact, Shakespeare didn’t pull the term out of the sky; rather, he plucked it from an Italian nickname. At the time, Italian men named Giovanni often caught the nickname “Zanni” from friends and family members. So it was a common name—like how we might refer to a person with the given name of William as “Bill” or “Billy.”

Well, “Zanni” was also a well-known 16th-century reference to a traditional Italian clown. Zanni was, well, a zany and humorous character that was known throughout much of Italy at that time. Undoubtedly, Shakespeare knew that most of his English-speaking audience wouldn’t understand the reference to an Italian clown. But he liked the sound of the term, so he anglicized it, and context clues did the rest of the work to get him to the finish line in Love’s Labour’s Lost. And us, too, to the finish line today![10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen