10 Little-Used Shakespearisms

shakespeareThe Most Quoted Author’s Least Quoted Quotes

The number of new words credited to Shakespeare is thought to number in the high hundreds, but add to that the number of pre-existing words he simply reworked or reused in a new context, and in total his Complete Works is thought to provide the earliest evidence of as many as 2000 English words.

It’s not just individual words that Shakespeare invented, either. You can thank him for all manner of English phrases, proverbs and expressions, from the be-all and end-all to your salad days, and from the green-eyed monster to the milk of human kindness. But that’s not to say that all of Shakespeare’s snappiest phrases and expressions caught on in the same way. The 10 listed here all made the leap from his scripts into everyday language at one time in the past, but most remain little known or else have long since dropped out of common use.


When things go from bad to worse for Orlando at the end of Act 1, Scene 2 of As You Like It—already disinherited, his scheming brother Oliver now wants him dead, and to cap it all he’s now head over heels in love with Rosalind—he bemoans that “thus must I, from the smoke into the smother.” The line is effectively a Shakespearean equivalent of “out of the frying pan, into the fire,” and has been used to mean precisely that ever since.


“Enough; hold, or cut bowstrings” is the final line of Act 1 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which the amateur players—including Nick Bottom, pre-ass’s head—discuss their plans for the show they’re going to put on for the Duke of Athens’ wedding. Although no one is entirely sure what Shakespeare meant this line to mean, the context seems to suggest something along the lines of “enough talking; we either go with what we’ve got, or abandon the whole thing”—the meaning by which hold or cut bowstrings eventually came to be used more widely. Quite what the exact origin of this phrase is, however, remains still a mystery, although one likely suggestion is that it has something to do with ancient archery competitions.


To feed like a boar in a frank is an old English proverb based on a line from Shakespeare’sHenry IV: Part 2, in which the young Prince Henry asks, “Where sups he? Doth the old boar feed in the old frank?” The “old boar” in question here is the drunken knight Sir John Falstaff, and a “frank” is an old word for a pigsty. To feed like a boar in a frank, ultimately, means to eat voraciously or gluttonously, or without any respect to your host or your fellow diners.


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