20 Expressions in the English Language that Originated or Were Popularised from Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is the most famous and arguably greatest writer Britain has ever produced. He elevated the English language to such an extent that many words and expressions that were first used in his plays over 400 years ago are still used today. Expressions or phrases with a figurative and not literal meaning were commonplace in Shakespearean spoken language. Anyone that has read or seen a Shakespeare play will know this! We use ‘idioms’ much more sparingly today, and when we do use them we rarely think of their origins or why they are given the meanings we ascribe to them.

Below are 20 of the most recognisable idiomatic expressions that either originated or were popularised from Shakespeare’s plays:

be-all-and-end-all

Patrick Stewart played Macbeth in the 2010 BBC television adaption.

Meaning: If something is ‘the be all and end all’ it is the very best or most important; something so good that it will end the search for something better.

come-full-circle

Meaning: If something or someone has ‘come full circle’, they are now at the same as they were at the beginning.

elbow-room

Meaning: There is enough space to move about.

fair-play

John William Waterhouse’s oil painting of Miranda, daughter of Prospero.

Meaning: Conformity to established rules; upright conduct and equitable conditions.

bated-breath

Al Pacino portrayed Shylock in the 2004 film version.

Meaning: Whilst holding one’s breath

dreams-are-made-on

Paraphrased: ‘the stuff that dreams are made of’ in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon.

foregone-conclusion

Meaning: A conclusion already reached; an inevitable result. 

forever-and-day

Meaning: For a very long time.

game-is-up

Meaning: Something that you say to tell someone that their secret plans or tricks have been discovered and they cannot continue.

good-riddance

Meaning: To be happy that someone or something is gone.

heart-of-my-heart

Meaning: If you know something in your heart of hearts, you are certain of it although you might not want to admit it. 

hearts-content

Meaning: If you do something enjoyable to your heart’s content, you do it as much as you want to.

method-in-madness

Hume Cronyn (far right) portraying Polonius opposite Richard Burton in John Gielgund’s 1964 Broadway production. He won a Tony Award for his performance. No other actor has won an award for playing Polonius in film or on stage.

Meaning: Something that you say which means that although someone seems to be behaving strangely, there is a reason for their behaviour.

mine-oyster

Meaning: You have the ability and the freedom to do exactly what you want.

one-wink

Meaning: To not have slept at all.

send-him-packing

Simon Russell Beale as Falstaff and Julie Walters as Mistress Quickly in the 2012 BBC television adaption as part of the Hollow Crown series.

Meaning: To send someone away; to dismiss someone, possibly rudely.

short-shrift

Bill Paterson portrayed Richard Ratcliffe opposite Ian McKellen in the 1995 film.

Meaning: A brief period of consideration of a person’s ideas or explanations.

sorry-sight

Meaning: A sight that one regrets seeing; someone or something that is unpleasant to look at.

thin-air

Helen Mirren portraying Prospera (a female version of Prospero) in the 2010 film.

Meaning: To suddenly become impossible to see or find.

love-is-blind

A young Maggie Smith portraying Portia in the 1972 BBC television adaption.

Meaning: If you love someone, you cannot see any faults in that person.

Studied History at King's College London and has a particular interest in the history of God and Christianity