Colloquial English Words and Phrases We Owe to Shakespeare

Updated April 1, 2020
Colloquial English Words and Phrases We Owe to Shakespeare
    Shakespeare portrait

English is a remarkably rich and diverse language; so, for those who'd like to increase their knowledge and vocabulary acumen, there are some common colloquial English words and phrases that should be at the top of the list for any English language learner.

Many of these expressions we owe to Shakespeare. You may have already heard them, but you may not know their history or exact meaning. The origin of phrases and expressions so many of us still use daily, without even thinking about them, is a fascinating discovery.

Some of the most common colloquial English words and phrases that Shakespeare invented include:

  • A sorry sight - From Macbeth. This means an unpleasant-looking view or aspect.
  • All the world's a stage - From As You Like It. Everyone has a role to play in this drama we call life.
  • All's well that ends well - Everything works itself out in the title of this Shakespeare play and it also appears in the text.
  • Brevity is the soul of wit - Keep it short and simple, like this line from a famous monologue in Hamlet.
  • A pound of flesh - Ever pay a credit card bill with interest rates that made it seem impossible you'd ever get rid of the balance owed? You might think the credit card company wanted a "pound of flesh" from you. That phrase was popular centuries before credit cards existed, and it was Shakespeare who popularized it in The Merchant of Venice.
  • Dead as a doornail - From King Henry VI, Part 2. The expression is said to refer to the large nails used to stud doors in medieval buildings. The nails were nailed flat on the opposite side of the door, hence, a nail that was no longer useable, or "dead."
  • In the twinkling of an eye - Shakespeare used that expression in The Merchant of Venice, but he took his inspiration from the Bible. That phrase appears in 1 Corinthians and is used to describe how at the end of time, God will raise the dead for the last judgment - a concept with which people of Shakespeare's time would have been very familiar.
  • Neither a borrower nor a lender be - Another expression from Hamlet that gained popular traction over the centuries. It was so popular, in fact, that Benjamin Franklin used it as one of his aphorisms in his "Poor Richard's Almanac."

Sources of Commonly Used Words

You may not crack open a Shakespeare play frequently, or glance at a Bible, yet some of the most common expressions English speakers use are derived from those two sources.

  • William Shakespeare was an incredibly popular playwright in his day. His plays weren't meant just for the highly educated or wealthy; common peasants sat in his audiences and greatly enjoyed the entertainment he brought them.
  • Literacy wasn't that common in Shakespeare's time, the late sixteenth century, but one of the books everyone would have had a close acquaintance with was the King James version of the Bible. Shakespeare, writing for the masses, frequently used biblical metaphors and phrases.

People in modern times may not easily get the allusions, but Shakespeare's theatergoers, even if they couldn't read, would know the biblical stories and phrases to which he was referring.


Choose Your Words Wisely

So take a look at your use of language and consider where common idioms and expressions come from. Your life and vocabulary can be immensely enriched by the variety of colloquial English words and phrases that have found their way from Shakespeare's plays, and even the Bible, into everyday use and stayed there.