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Shakespeare Said: The Words & Phrases Attributed to William Shakespeare

By Catherine Muxworthy

English playwright, actor, and poet, William Shakespeare, also known simply as ‘The Bard’ is often considered one of the greatest writers in the English language and considered internationally as one of the world’s greatest dramatists.

His plays have been translated into every major modern language and they are still performed, studied and reinterpreted to this day. Many of the words we still today are thought to be invented by Shakespeare or at least first used in his plays. While it is not certain that these words should be attributed to William Shakespeare, they are around 422 words that often credited to the writer and these are just a few of the most commonly used ones.


Something that deserves respect or admiration. For example, the act of being honest is an admirable quality.


Often used when describing a lie, telling a barefaced lie is one that is shameless and without any kind of concealment or disguise and, therefore, it is not a very good lie.

Fair play:

“Yes, for a score of kingdoms you should wrangle, And I would call it, fair play.” – Merchant of Venice. Fair play is used to describe something which follows the rules, whether these are unwritten such as the unspoken rules of being a good friend or rules that are part of a competition or sports games.


“That beats upon the high shore of this world. No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony, Not all these, laid in bed majestical, Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave, Who, with a body filled and vacant mind, Gets him to rest, crammed with distressful bread; Never sees horrid night, the child of hell, But, like a lackey, from the rise to set Sweats in the eye of Phoebus, and all night Sleeps in Elysium; next day after dawn, Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse, And follows so the ever-running year.” – Henry V

First popularized in the play, Henry V and also used in Henry IV, the word dawn is still in very common usage when describing the first appearance of light in the morning when the sun rises.

All that glitters isn’t gold”:

A phrase that we would still use after we discover that something that initially looked great isn’t as good as it first appeared. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, he wrote, “All that glitters is not gold; Often have you heard that told: Many a man his life hath sold But my outside to behold: Gilded tombs do worms enfold. Had you been as wise as bold.”


A person or group that keeps a close watch over something to uncover illegal or wrongful behavior. The idea of a watchdog first appeared in the form of actual dogs, in The Tempest in which Shakespeare wrote, “The watch-dogs bark!” In contemporary society, popular watchdogs include; PETA and, of course, the aptly named crime watch TV show, the BBC’s Watchdog.

Break the Ice:

This term is often used in regard to meeting someone for the first time, you will ‘break the ice’ between them by asking polite questions about themselves and/or making small talk. The phrase was first used in Shakespeare’s play, The Taming of the Shrew in which the playwright wrote; “If it be so, sir, that you are the man Must stead us all, and me amongst the rest, And if you break the ice and do this feat, Achieve the elder, set the younger free For our access, whose hap shall be to have her Will not so graceless be to be ingrate.”

Devil Incarnate:

You may use this phrase to describe someone who you strongly dislike, someone who is evil, scheming and therefore, like a reincarnated devil. First used in Shakespeare’s blood-thirsty play, Titus Andronicus in 1588 in which he wrote, “O worthy Goth, this is the incarnate devil That robb’d Andronicus of his good hand.” Shakespeare also used it again in 1598 in his play Henry V in which he wrote, “Boy: Yes, that a’ did; and said they were devils incarnate.”

A laughing stock:

You will be considered a laughing stock if you have done something to make a fool of yourself and therefore are considered a joke by many people. For example, if you were accepting an award and fell on stage, you may feel like a laughing stock amongst your peers who are watching on. In Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor the character Sir High Evans says, “Pray you let us not be laughing-stocks to other men’s humours; I desire you
in friendship, and I will one way or other make you amends.”

It’s Greek to me:

A phrase still used today to describe something you don’t understand, when you admit ‘It’s all Greek to me,” you are basically saying that it’s a language you don’t know and therefore you don’t understand what is being said. Shakespeare made this phrase popular in his play Julius Caesar, in which Casca says of a speech by Senaca – which is deliberately given in Greek so some people wouldn’t understand – “For mine own part, it was Greek to me.”

Wild-goose Chase:

Wild-goose chase was first used by Shakespeare in his romantic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, in which the Bard wrote “Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done; For thou hast more of the wild goose in one of thy wits Than, I am sure, I have in my whole five. Was I with you There for the goose?” The quote came from the character Mercutio and he was effectively telling Romeo that he couldn’t keep up with Romero changing topics so often. This expression is still used to describe when someone leads you on a wild chase to find them or some information.

So, how many of these common words and phrases did you know were first used in Shakespearean English?

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