5 Words and Phrases Coined by Shakespeare
  • 5-minute read
  • 15th March 2021

5 Words and Phrases Coined by Shakespeare

The playwright William Shakespeare is credited with introducing over 1,700 words to the English language. Some fell by the wayside, but we still use many today.

To celebrate this year’s Shakespeare Week, then, we’re taking a look at some of our favorite Shakespearean words and phrases.

1. Green-Eyed Monster (The Merchant of Venice)

In Elizabethan England, many emotions had colors attached to them, with envy and jealousy seen as green or yellow. Shakespeare drew on this with the adjective “green-eyed”: in The Merchant of Venice, Portia declares that her love for Bassano makes all other emotions disappear, including “green-eyed jealousy.”

He developed the idea further in Othello, using the phrase “green-eyed monster” to personify the emotion. We see this when Iago tells Othello not to give in to jealousy, while secretly encouraging him to do so:

It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.

We still use the phrase “green-eyed monster” like this today.

2. Hot and Cold Blood (The Merry Wives of Windsor and King John)

People once believed that emotions were connected to the blood. If you were angry, your blood was hot or boiling, but it cooled as you calmed down. And if your blood was too cold, you would lack empathy and act without emotion.

Shakespeare did not invent this idea, but he may have been the first to coin adjectives based on it. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, for instance, Falstaff says:

The Windsor bell hath struck twelve; the minute draws on. Now, the hot-blooded-Gods assist me!

Here, he is calling on the gods to help him, comparing his own passion to theirs.

By contrast, in King John, Constance calls Austria a “cold-blooded knave.” In doing this, she is accusing him of being heartless and calculating. You can also say that something was done “in cold blood” to mean the same thing.

3. Lackluster (As You Like It)

People often used to put “lack” before a word to create a negative version. To be “lackland” was to be landless, for example, and a “lack-Latin” was a priest with no learning. “Lackluster” was just one of many such words.

Shakespeare used this term in As You Like It to describe someone looking at a timepiece with a “dull” eye (i.e., with a solemn look on their face):

And then he drew a dial from his poke
And, looking on it with lackluster eye…

This figurative sense of “lackluster” is common in modern English. In fact, it would be unusual to hear this word used to describe a literal lack of shine! Nowadays, most people use it to suggest mediocrity or a lack of effort.

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4. Wild-Goose Chase (Romeo and Juliet)

While Romeo and Juliet is most famous as a romance, it also gave us the phrase “wild-goose chase.” This refers to a hopeless search or quest, especially one where you waste time looking for something that does not exist or is unobtainable.

You can see why this term caught on, as we can easily picture someone chasing ineffectively after a goose. However, Shakespeare probably did not have geese in mind when he used the phrase! In Romeo and Juliet, it appears in an exchange between Romeo and Mercutio about a battle of wits:

Romeo: Switch and spurs, switch and spurs; or I’ll cry a match.

Mercutio: Nay, 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.

This referred to a type of horse race popular at the time, where the racers would trail the lead horse like a flock of geese. Mercutio is simply saying that, if Romeo is taking the lead in their battle of wits, he can no longer hope to keep up. So, while we do have a sense of a fruitless pursuit here, it does not involve a goose!

This original horse-themed sense of “wild-goose chase” later fell into obscurity. Nobody is quite sure when it took on a more literal sense of “as futile as chasing a goose.” But Dr. Samuel Johnson defined it as “a pursuit of something as unlikely to be caught as a wild goose” in his famous dictionary, so it was likely in use by then.

Nevertheless, we’ll credit the Bard here because he was possibly the first person to use “wild-goose chase” in a figurative sense to mean something hopeless.

5. In a Pickle (The Tempest)

Finally, Shakespeare may have been one of the first to use the phrase “in a pickle” in English. In The Tempest, Alonso and Trinculo share this exchange:

Alonso: And Trinculo is reeling ripe: where should they find this grand liquor that hath gilded ’em? How camest thou in this pickle?

Trinculo: I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last that, I fear me, will never out of my bones: I shall not fear fly-blowing.

Here, Alonso is asking Trinculo how he came to be so drunk. We still sometimes say someone is “pickled” if they are very drunk. But the phrase “in a pickle” has taken on the more general sense of “in trouble” over time in English.

We can see this more general sense of trouble or disarray by 1660 in Samuel Pepys’ diary. In one entry, he describes his house as being “in a most sad pickle.”

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We’ve picked a few Shakespearean terms for this post, but what are your favorite words and phrases from his writing? Let us know in the comments!

And if reading the Bard for Shakespeare Week has inspired you to write, why not get one of our expert proofreaders to check your work?

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