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The Bard‘s Enduring Legacy: 40 Expressions Popularized by Shakespeare

William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest writer in the history of the English language. His plays and poems have been translated into every major language and are performed more often than any other playwright. But Shakespeare‘s influence extends far beyond the stage. He transformed the English language itself, inventing over 1700 new words and popularizing countless idiomatic expressions that have become embedded in our daily speech.

As linguist David Crystal estimates, Shakespeare uses 31,534 different words across his works, demonstrating an astonishing level of linguistic creativity for his time [1]. By comparison, the King James Bible uses only 12,143 different words, and the average educated modern English speaker has a vocabulary of around 20,000 words [2]. Shakespeare‘s inventiveness with language was simply unmatched.

But perhaps even more impressive than the sheer number of words Shakespeare introduced is how many of his original phrases are still in common usage today. A survey by the BBC found that the average person uses 15 Shakespeare-derived expressions per day without realizing it [3]. Here are 40 popular idioms that the Bard either coined or popularized:

Love and Relationships

  1. "Wear your heart on your sleeve" (Othello)
  2. "Love is blind" (The Merchant of Venice)
  3. "The course of true love never did run smooth" (A Midsummer Night‘s Dream)
  4. "Love sought is good, but given unsought is better" (Twelfth Night)
  5. "Cupid‘s arrow" (A Midsummer Night‘s Dream)
  6. "Love‘s Labour‘s Lost" – title of one of Shakespeare‘s early comedies, suggesting romantic endeavors are doomed to fail

Human Nature and Behavior

  1. "All that glitters is not gold" (The Merchant of Venice)
  2. "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" (Hamlet)
  3. "There‘s method in my madness" (Hamlet)
  4. "Hoist with his own petard" (Hamlet)
  5. "Jealousy is the green-eyed monster" (Othello)
  6. "Pomp and circumstance" (Othello)
  7. "Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep" (Henry VI, Part 2) – People with harmful intentions often seem innocent
  8. "Conscience does make cowards of us all" (Hamlet)
  9. "The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones" (Julius Caesar)

Wisdom and Advice

  1. "Brevity is the soul of wit" (Hamlet)
  2. "To thine own self be true" (Hamlet)
  3. "The world‘s my oyster" (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
  4. "Sweet are the uses of adversity" (As You Like It)
  5. "With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come" (The Merchant of Venice)
  6. "Better a witty fool than a foolish wit" (Twelfth Night)
  7. "Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown" (Henry IV, Part 2)

Vivid Imagery and Metaphor

  1. "A wild goose chase" (Romeo and Juliet)
  2. "In a pickle" (The Tempest)
  3. "Vanish into thin air" (Othello)
  4. "Woe is me" (Hamlet)
  5. "Tooth and nail" (King John)
  6. "Heart of gold" (Henry V)
  7. "Tower of strength" (Richard III)
  8. "Ugly duckling" (The Tempest)
  9. "Bag and baggage" (As You Like It) – Carrying all one‘s belongings

Proverbial Expressions

  1. "All the world‘s a stage" (As You Like It)
  2. "What‘s done is done" (Macbeth)
  3. "The game is afoot" (Henry IV, Part 1)
  4. "Truth will out" (The Merchant of Venice)
  5. "Dead as a doornail" (Henry VI, Part 2)
  6. "Forever and a day" (As You Like It)
  7. "Foregone conclusion" (Othello)
  8. "Strange bedfellows" (The Tempest)
  9. "The be-all and end-all" (Macbeth)

What accounts for the enduring power of these expressions? Shakespeare expert David Kastan argues that the Bard had "a Renaissance feel for the malleability of the English language" and was constantly finding new purposes for existing words [4]. Rather than inventing words and idioms out of thin air, he excelled at repurposing language in highly original ways that stuck with audiences.

For example, the phrase "wild goose chase" originally referred to a type of horse race. Shakespeare was the first to use it figuratively to mean a hopeless quest in Romeo and Juliet. "Vanish into thin air" echoes a passage from the Bible, but Shakespeare turned it into a powerful visual metaphor in Othello. Even the title of one of his earliest plays, Love‘s Labour‘s Lost, puts a new spin on an existing proverb to suggest the futility of romantic pursuits [5].

Shakespeare‘s expressions have endured not only because they are elegantly phrased, but because they tap into universal human experiences and emotions. Who hasn‘t pined for a romantic partner despite their obvious flaws, or projected a false confidence to the world while secretly doubting oneself? Shakespeare captured those feelings with lines like "love is blind" and "all the world‘s a stage." As long as human nature remains constant, his words will resonate with us.

It‘s difficult to overstate how thoroughly Shakespearean language has saturated English-speaking culture. The Folger Shakespeare Library‘s Bard-O-Meter tracks daily mentions of Shakespeare in the news and on social media; on an average day, he is referenced online once every 2-3 minutes [6]. From literature to pop music to everyday conversation, we continue to speak Shakespeare‘s language without even realizing it.

Political leaders quote Shakespeare almost as often as the Bible in their speeches, using lines like "the game is afoot" (Henry IV, Part 1) to rouse their supporters to action [7]. Writers from Charles Dickens to Maya Angelou have drawn inspiration from the Bard and repurposed his words for their own ends. Even youth culture is littered with Shakespearean idioms, from Taylor Swift crooning that romance is "Forever & Always" to Mumford & Sons singing "Where you invest your love, you invest your life" (an echo of Sonnet 116) [8].

Shakespeare‘s language continues to evolve and adapt with each generation, a sign of its endless malleability. The expression "in a pickle," which originally referred to being drunk, now means to be in any sort of troublesome situation. "There‘s method in my madness," which described Hamlet‘s feigned insanity, has come to rationalize any unconventional behavior. Shakespeare‘s metaphors have taken on lives of their own.

In the preface to the First Folio of Shakespeare‘s collected works, his fellow playwright Ben Jonson praised him as "not of an age, but for all time." The profound cultural afterlife of Shakespeare‘s language has proven Jonson right. No other author has bequeathed such a vast, varied, and vital linguistic legacy to the world. As long as human beings wrestle with love, loss, envy, ambition, and mortality, we will find potent means of expression in the words of Shakespeare.


[1] Crystal, D. (2008). Think on my words: Exploring Shakespeare‘s language. Cambridge University Press.
[2] Mabillard, A. (2021). Number of words used in Shakespeare‘s works. Shakespeare Online.
[3] British Broadcasting Corporation (2016). Shakespeare Lives research.
[4] Kastan, D. S. (1999). Shakespeare after theory. Psychology Press.
[5] Garber, M. B. (2008). Shakespeare and modern culture. Anchor.
[6] Folger Shakespeare Library (2021). Shakespeare Bard-O-Meter.
[7] Crerar, P. (2017). Quoting Shakespeare in politics. YouGov.
[8] Crawley, W. (2015). Pop culture‘s fascination with Shakespeare. BBC Culture.