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A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

21 Everyday Phrases You’d Never Believe Were Invented By Shakespeare

You don't have to walk around proclaiming "to be or not to be," to bring Shakespeare into everyday conversation. Here's how you're already doing it.

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Come full circle

In any heated debate—especially with someone who is always right—you can expect to end up right where you started at some point. That’s when you throw up your hands and yell, “We’ve come full circle!” (Just like a wheel, as King Lear dutifully points out.) But sometimes, wise quotes are the only things you need to resolve a dead-locked argument.

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 Eaten me out of my house…

We all have that one friend who makes himself just a little too comfortable at your place, particularly in your kitchen, and unknowingly “eats you out of house and home.” In Henry IV, Part 2, that guy is Sir John Falstaff, and the hostess at the local tavern is thoroughly unimpressed with his unquenchable appetite and refusal to pay his tab.

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Elbow room

City-dwellers know the value of “elbow room,” but when Shakespeare used the phrase in King John, the titular king was actually looking for elbow room for his soul to free his conscience. Talk about deep food for thought that makes you ponder the meaning of life.

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 A fool’s paradise

Does it surprise anyone that, out of all of Shakespeare’s plays, this phrase would end up in Romeo and Juliet? Didn’t think so. Juliet’s nurse warns Romeo against leading Juliet into “a fool’s paradise” and not following through on his promise to get a friar for their wedding. Turns out he did, but that wasn’t enough to prevent their tragic fates…

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Give the devil his due

No one actually makes transactions with Satan in Henry IV, Part 1, just like how we don’t interpret the phrase literally when we use it present day. Shakespeare references the proverb with the same meaning we use today: to recognize or compliment someone’s good qualities, even if they’re an otherwise undeserving person.

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 Wear my heart on my sleeve

Yes, you have Shakespeare to thank for this common lyric in angsty pop love songs. But instead of using it in the context of singing about a teenage crush, Iago sees this personality trait as one of the key differences between him and Othello. Othello isn’t afraid to say how he feels, Iago keeps his emotions hidden away. Another difference: Othello’s an honorable man, and Iago’s a two-faced sneak with a dastardly plan.

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 Love is blind

This all-too-true expression had the same meaning in Shakespeare’s day as it does today, though its context in The Merchant of Venice involves a classic scenario in his work. Lovers Jessica and Lorenzo plan to elope, so Jessica disguises herself as a boy to not draw suspicion. She’s embarrassed about her new get-up, but Lorenzo doesn’t care because of his love for her. Jessica sure knows how to pick a keeper.

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 Neither here nor there

No relevance here, no relevance there, no relevance anywhere—That’s the Seussian definition of this originally Shakespearean expression. In Othello, Desdemona asks Emilia if her itching eyes are an omen that she’ll cry soon. Emilia assures her it’s neither here nor there, it doesn’t mean anything. To be honest, there are worse bad omens she should be worried about.

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 Something in the wind

There’s always something in the wind when it comes to Shakespeare’s plays—that is, each one involves some sort of secret plan that ultimately ends up changing the direction of the plot. In The Comedy of Errors, that thing in the wind is what keeps Antiphons of Ephesus from being welcomed into an inn. Naturally, he threatens to break the door down, and Dromio of Ephesus threatens to break his face. Sounds like they could use some anger management classes.

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The be-all and the end-all

The “be-all and end-all” in the modern business world is becoming CEO of a successful company or the equivalent of Mark Zuckerberg. For Macbeth, it’s murdering King Duncan without leaving a trace and avoiding all consequences. Oh, how the times have changed.

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The naked truth

When someone tells you “the naked truth,” you know they’re being completely honest—and that’s a pretty good sign that you can trust them. But Shakespeare gets punny with this expression in Love’s Labour’s Lost. When asked why he won’t fight, Armado replies, “The naked truth of it is, I have no shirt.”

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The green-eyed monster

Jealous much? We’ve all suffered pangs of “the green-eyed monster,” from the new sibling who stole mom’s lap to the ex who walked by with a new squeeze. But did you know that expression came from Othello, the classic tale of jealousy gone wild between a war hero and his much younger wife? Maybe if Othello had read common behaviors that are subtly sabotaging your relationship, he would have brushed off his suspicions.

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Wild goose chase

If you’ve ever been annoyed by a “wild goose chase,” you’re in classy company. In Romeo and Juliet, that iconic tragedy of star-crossed lovers from enemy clans, the hero’s pal complains of being dragged along on Romeo’s “wild goose chase” adventures. And considering the terrible consequences of Romeo’s complicated schemes in the end, his friend has a point. Spoiler alert: Lots of people die.

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Cruel to be kind

Whether you’ve hummed along to “Cruel to be kind,” the ’70s pop hit by Nick Lowe, or a pediatrician has advised you to let the baby “cry it out,” you’ve definitely heard this expression. But as it turns out, the first one to say it was Hamlet, the depressed Danish prince who’s torn between killing the uncle who murdered Hamlet’s dad, or his mom, who married the uncle. (In our opinion, Hamlet is definitely more cruel than kind, especially when he dumps his girlfriend Ophelia in the meanest possible way.)

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A sorry sight

Did your fifth grade teacher or your grandmother ever call your dirty hands “a sorry sight”? Turns out she was channeling Lady Macbeth, the ultimate nagging spouse, telling her husband not to be such a baby after he killed his best friend to become King of Scotland. P.S. Later Lady M. goes insane about the blood on her own hands, so what goes around comes around, at least in Shakespeare. Maybe they should have read this article about how to wash your hands. Or maybe it would have worsened her condition.

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Fancy free

Have you ever described yourself as “fancy free” after a breakup? This one comes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an airy, playful romance set in a magical forest with fairies, love potions, and so many sets of lovers that they can’t even tell each other apart. But it’s actually the poetry in Midsummer Night’s Dream that’s both fancy and free.

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Brave new world

When you talk about a “brave new world,” you may think you’re quoting the title of an Aldous Huxley novel, but you’re actually quoting Miranda in The Tempest. She’s the pretty young thing who’s been marooned on an island with her magician father so long, she’s practically doing backflips when a few semi-eligible men wash up on shore. Dad wants to take back his throne on the mainland and punish the usurpers. Miranda’s engaged before they leave the island again. It’s a brave new world indeed.

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More sinned against than sinning

Have you always assumed that somebody Biblical was the one “more sinned against than sinning”? Well, King Lear, who actually says it of himself, might kind of enjoy your mistake. He’s the tragically grandiose monarch who loses everything, even his sanity, when he demands sugary compliments as proof of his daughters’ devotion.

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Set your teeth on edge

Does bad writing “set your teeth on edge”? Then you’re with Harry Hotspur, the bad boy war hero who rides through Henry IV, the 15th century king in two of Shakespeare’s most famous historical plays. Hotspur says he hates “nothing so much as mincing poetry,” but apparently politics gets him a little more riled up because he later leads an ill-fated rebellion against the king. Nothing against a weak poet. Do you love that “old book smell”? Here’s why

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Break the ice

You know it’s an awkward first date when you’re racking your brain for a subject with which to “break the ice,” but you probably never guessed the phrase comes from the original awkward double date, The Taming of the Shrew, the Shakespearean comedy about a pair of very different sisters wooed in opposite ways. Spoiler alert: The grumpy girl winds up with the better guy. Avoid these dating mistakes if you’re over 40.

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Too much of a good thing

We keep these articles brief because it’s possible to have “too much of a good thing,” but we never knew that the expression came from Twelfth Night, possibly Shakespeare’s most complicated comedy, full of twins, cross-dressing, and lots of seemingly unrequited love. But going back to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “All’s well that ends well”!

Next, check out 22 of Shakespeare’s best insults.