Top 10 words & top 10 phrases from Shakespeare

The Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare. (Or was it Shakespere, Shakespear, or Shakspere?) No matter how you spell it, Shakespeare was an undeniable genius whose contributions to the English language and world literature are monumental.

As we’re about to celebrate 7000 subscribers to our UX writing newsletter, we thought we’d take a closer look at Shakespeare’s grand influence on English. So many of the words and phrases he coined are still being used today with surprising regularity, including in UX writing.

And so, without further ado, here are our top 10 words, and top 10 phrases from the master.

10 words invented by Shakespeare

We have to start things off with one caveat. Though Shakespeare is oft credited with creating these words, the real story, as usually is the case, is more complex. So let’s dive in!

1) Newfangled — I love this word, which today means new, but with a hint of being overly complex or unnecessary. It has a great history coming from new being used together with the Old English verb fang, which meant grasp or seize. Though he didn’t invent it, we can likely thank Shakespeare for it still being in use today. 

In As You Like It, heroine and protagonist Rosalind warns that she’ll be “more new-fangled than an ape, more giddy in my desires than a monkey.” I think that’s just special.

2) Swagger — Speaking of newfangled, here’s a word that sounds as current as can be. But this is one where we can credit the Bard, with the first attestations coming from his plays. In the 1580s, it meant “to strut in a defiant or insolent manner.” Yeah, pretty much the same in 2020.

In Henry IV, Part II, it appears in the line: “I will bar no honest man my nor no cheater; but I do not love swaggering, by my troth.”

3) Unfriend — Here’s another that you might think is a recent invention—more Zuckerburg than Shakespeare. Nay! ‘Tis not so! Shakespeare used it a few times, as in “which to a stranger, Unguided and unfriended, often prove Rough and unhospitable” from The Twelfth Night.

4) Multitudinous — Though you may not want to load your UI up with this five-syllable beauty, you never know. Meaning numerous or having many parts, this probably first appears in Macbeth, depending on the date of publication. Shakespeare spoke of multitudinous tongues and seas. 

5) Lackluster — Shakespeare had a knack for combining words to form new compound words. Put lack and luster together, and you get dull or, metaphorically, lacking in vitality, force, or conviction. 

In As You Like It, it appears in the line: “And then he drew a dial from his poke, / And, looking on it with lack-lustre eye …” (A dial from his poke is just a watch from his bag, if you were wondering.)

6) Ladybird — OK, here’s the story I heard. What are called ladybugs in North America are called ladybirds in Britain and elsewhere. This comes from “Our Lady’s Bird” which meant the Virgin Mary. Why? Don’t ask. But Shakespeare shortened it and turned it into a term of endearment for Juliet. Not from Romeo though—it’s Juliet’s nurse who calls out: “What, lamb! what, ladybird! / God forbid! Where’s this girl? What, Juliet!”

7) Bedazzled — How did we go from Shakespeare to an overgrown stapler for putting plastic rhinestones on your acid-washed denim jacket? In The Taming of the Shrew, Katherina speaks of her “… mistaking eyes, / That have been so bedazzled with the sun / That everything I look on seemeth green.” Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

8) Lackbrain — Did I mention he liked compound words? Lack was such a useful prefix that he kept it going with lackbrain, which you can now add to your personal lexicon of fancy insults. “What a lack-brain …” is straight out of Henry IV, Part I.

9) Dwindle — This is a lovely word and another that Shakespeare just pulled out of his hat. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it comes from the Middle English dwinen, meaning waste away, fade, vanish. Shakespeare turned it into the diminutive dwindle, like in Macbeth: “Weary sev’nnights nine times nine / Shall he dwindle, peak and pine.” 

10) Hot/cold/etc.-blooded — Shakespeare apparently had a thing for blood, coining terms like hot-blooded, cold-blooded, life-blood, heart-blood, and others. From the Duke of Albany’s savage burn of “half-blooded fellow” to Falstaff’s “sober-blooded boy” the blood was flowing back in the old Globe Theatre.

10 phrases invented by Shakespeare

Now let’s check out some phrases and expressions. Again, while Big Willie S. didn’t necessarily invent all of these expressions, he did at least help popularize them. Here are some of the best.

1) Love is blind — It’s hard to think of a more far-reaching expression. Shakespeare didn’t coin it, but he did help make it so widespread. 

“But love is blind and lovers cannot see / The pretty follies that themselves commit.” The Merchant of Venice.

2) Heart of gold — Here’s another popular expression, first recorded in Henry V and later song-a-fied by Neil Young in ‘72.

In the play, the swaggering yet cowardly Pistol says: “The king’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold, / A lad of life, an imp of fame;”

3) Brave new world — This one served as the inspiration for another significant literary work, Aldus Huxley’s classic novel of the same name.

From The Tempest: “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in’t.”

4) One fell swoop — Here’s one that is both common, and commonly used erroneously. So, it’s not “foul” but “fell.” The word “fell” used to mean evil or cruel, which clarifies the original meaning of the phrase. And even though the original quote does mention chickens, there’s no “foul” in the phrase.

From Macbeth: “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam / At one fell swoop?”

5) In a pickle — This one’s a bit confusing. Why does it mean “to be in a difficult situation?” No one seems to be certain, but in the original Shakespeare, it had more to do with being drunk.

In The Tempest when Alfonso says “I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last,” he means I’ve been so drunk. Alfonso and Rick would get along.

6) Break the ice — Since Shakespeare used it in The Taming of the Shrew, the meaning has stayed more or less the same to this day. Though in the original, there’s the double meaning of breaking through the “shrew’s” icy demeanor.

“And if you break the ice, and do this feat, / Achieve the elder, set the younger free”

7) Wild-goose chase — The going theory on this phrase’s origin is a type of horse race where the participant resembled the “V” formation of wild geese in flight. And now you know. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a “duck, duck, goose” connection in there somewhere.

From Romeo and Juliet: “Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done.”

8) Clothes make the man — We can give Shakey half credit on this one—it’s changed a bit since the original line in Hamlet when Polonius advised his son that “the apparel oft proclaims the man.” Close enough. 

9) Wear my heart upon my sleeve — Meaning to show one’s feeling openly, this line comes right out of Othello where Iago says he “will wear my heart upon my sleeve.” But why sleeve?

Seems it comes from medieval jousting where knights would wear on their arm the scarf of the fair maiden they were courting, thus proclaiming their affection and defending the lady’s honor. And to think, now all we do is swipe right.

10) Laughing stock — In The Merry Wives of Windsor we have the line “Pray you let us not be laughing-stocks to other men’s humours.” Sounds innocent enough until you realize the “stocks” in question were these:

That wraps up our little tribute to Shakespeare—hope you enjoyed it.

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