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Friday, May 6, 2016

No, you're NOT "quoting Shakespeare"

This video has been doing the rounds for Shakespeare's birthday:

Fantastic, isn't it, all those phrases that we use that were invented by Shakespeare?

EXCEPT THEY WEREN'T!!! Sorry for shouting, but this really bugs me, not least because it takes hours to check all these things in the OED, whereas it takes milliseconds to share this video. And no, this blog post won't get the 45,000+ shares that the original Telegraph posting of this video did. But for you, dear readers, I did the work, and here are the words and phrases which this video claims were created by Shakespeare THAT AREN'T!! (sorry, shouting again, I know it's rude). 

Below is all pre-Shakespeare evidence for these words. Please make it stop.

For more on this problem see this post and this one.  

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Greek to me
1603   T. Dekker et al. Patient Grissill sig. C,   Far... Asking for some greeke Poet, to him he falles..but Ile be sworne he knowes not so much as one Character of the tongue. Ric. Why then its greeke to him.

Play fast and loose
1557   Earl of Surrey et al. Songes & Sonettes (new ed.) f. 64 (heading)    Of a new maried studient that plaied fast or lose.

1529   T. More Dialogue Heresyes i, in Wks. 107/2   He is of nature nothing tonge tayed.

1571   A. Golding tr. J. Calvin Psalmes of Dauid with Comm. (iii. 5)   He himselfe was not tungtyde, but rather lifted up his voyce

tower of strength
1549   Bk. Common Prayer (STC 16267) Matrimonie f. xv*v,   O lorde..Bee vnto them a tower of strength.


 1. trans. To cover the eyes with a hood or other covering so as to prevent vision; to blindfold.

1562   Apol. Priv. Masse (1850) 10   Will you enforce women to hoodwink themselves in the church?

 2. fig. To cover up from sight.

a1600   R. Hooker Of Lawes Eccl. Politie (1648) vi. 99   Had it pleased him not to hud-winck his own knowledge, I nothing doubt but hee fully saw how to answer himselfe.

 3. fig. To blindfold mentally; to prevent (any one) from seeing the truth or fact; to ‘throw dust in the eyes’ of, deceive, humbug.

1610   J. Healey tr. St. Augustine Citie of God xxi. viii. 848   Let not the faithlesse therefore hood-winck them-selues in the knowledge of nature.

1585   J. Foxe Serm. 2 Cor. v. 21   In this pickle lyeth man by nature, that is, all wee that be Adams children.

Make a virtue of necessity
c1405  (▸c1395)    Chaucer Squire's Tale (Hengwrt) (2003) l. 585   That I made vertu of necessitee And took it wel syn þt it moste be.

Fair play
?a1500   R. Henryson tr. Æsop Fables: Wolf & Wether l. 2564 in Poems (1981) 95   Quhether call ȝe this fair play or nocht.

Not sleep a wink
1542   N. Udall tr. Erasmus Apophthegmes f. 316,   A good vigilaunt Consul..whiche never slept one wynke duryng..his Consulship.

Cold comfort
1571   A. Golding tr. J. Calvin Psalmes of Dauid with Comm. (x. 14)   We receive but cold comfort of whatsoever the Scripture speaketh.

fool`s paradise
1462   W. Paston in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) I. 167,   I wold nat be in a folis paradyce.

Have seen better days
c1590   Sir T. More iv. v. 86   But we..Hauing seene better dayes, now know the lack Of glorie that once rearde eche high-fed back.

Early days
a1535   T. More Dialoge of Comfort (1553) i. xiv. sig. C.viiv,   She telleth hym then that it is but early dayes, and he shall come tyme ynough.

Bag and baggage
1525   Ld. Berners tr. J. Froissart Chron. I. cccxx. 497   So all the men of warre within departed with bag and baggage.

High time
c1400  (▸?a1387)    Langland Piers Plowman (Huntington HM 137) (1873) C. xix. l. 139   Til plenitudo temporis hih tyme a-prochede.
a1450  (▸c1412)    T. Hoccleve De Regimine Principum (Harl. 4866) l. 1990 (MED),   Go home to þi mete, It is hy tyme.
1518   H. Watson tr. Hystorye Olyuer of Castylle xxx. sig. G. iijv,   It was hyghe tyme to goo in to the courte.

The long and the short
a1500   Merchant & Son l. 46 in W. C. Hazlitt Remains Early Pop. Poetry Eng. (1864) I. 135   Thys ys the schorte and longe.

The game is up
1599   ‘T. Cutwode’ Caltha Poetarum sig. E7,   The scantlin won, the winners must cry whup, The goale is got, and now the game is vp.

Foul play
a1500  (▸?a1450)    Gesta Romanorum (Harl. 7333) 248   The lion wolde have I-made a foule pleye withe þe lorde & withe þe lady.
Set someone`s teeth on edge
1535   Bible (Coverdale) Jer. xxxi. 29   Ye fathers haue eaten a sower grape, and the childrens teth are set on edge.

Without rhyme or reason
1531   Tyndale Answere Mores Dialoge f. lvii,   For appose her now of christ, as scripture testifieth of him, and thou shalt finde her clene without ryme or reason.

Good riddance
c1525   J. Rastell Away Mourning (single sheet)    I haue her lost, For all my cost, yet for all that I trowe I haue perchaunce, A fayre ryddaunce, And am quyt of a shrew.

Send someone packing
c1580   tr. Bugbears v. vii. 28 in Archiv f. das Studium der Neueren Sprachen (1897) 99 50,   I sent the knaves packinge.

Dead as a doornail
1362   Langland Piers Plowman A. i. 161   Fey withouten fait is febelore þen nouȝt, And ded as a dore-nayl.

1530   J. Rastell New Bk. Purgatory iii. viii. sig. g,   Ye spottes..be..a great deformyte & eye sore. 

laughing stock 
?1518   A. Barclay tr. D. Mancinus Myrrour Good Maners sig. Aiv,   Thynge nat lesse vyler, is to be ignorant Of maners vncomly: ageynst all honeste As fable or laughyng stocke, of lewdest commonte.

Devil incarnate
1395   J. Purvey Remonstr. (1851) 53   A sone of perdicioun, and a devil incarnat othir in flesh.

?1545   J. Bale 2nd Pt. Image Both Churches ii. xvi. sig. P.ij,   As cruellye harted and as bloudye mynded are they yet as euer they were afore.

1935   J. Agate in Sunday Times 17 Mar. 6/2   A man says to a presumed lady, ‘What a bloody-minded woman you are!’(earliest for the common figurative sense)

by Jove
1575   R. B. Apius & Virginia sig. Biijv,   By Ioue master Marchant..Would get but smale argent, if I did not stand, His very good master.

Tut tut
1536   in J. Strype Eccl. Mem. (1721) I. xxxvi. 282   [He said, to what she had spoken, as it seems, in her own defence] Tut, tut, tut [and shaking his head three or four times].

What the dickens
1599   T. Heywood 1st Pt. King Edward IV sig. E3,   What the dickens is it loue that makes ye prate to me so fondly. 


  1. Fascinating stuff ... thank you!

    I was aware that some were not old Will; others came as a surprise. And by all means shout ... loudly. This is yet one more example of how it's much more interesting to get a bit closer to the truth than to just accept the legends.

    Personal favourite is Piers Plowman - And ded as a dore-nayl.

  2. Great post. And even if we had no pre-Shakespeare evidence for all of these phrases, that doesn't necessarily mean that he invented all of them—it just means he's the first person to have written them down that we know of.

    1. EXACTLY!!! (oops, shouting again)

    2. Yes, you have won the battle. However, I know almost none of the first known users except the BCP, and most of those phrases survive in usage ONLY because of old Bill. I have heard people quote the KJV when they are in fact referencing the Bhagavad Gita. My fave, however, is The Donald quoting Mussolini. If the shoe fits.. (I'm quoting Scooby Doo) -- Dennis J. Hassell

    3. they survive in usage because they were being used by many people, not just by one person who then got quoted.

  3. Thanks for a great post - it must have taken ages to look all those up!

    If Shakespeare invented all the words/phrases that he is given credit for, his plays would have been complete nonsense to the people who went to see them. And now it turns out he's not even the first to have written them down?? Such a scam. :-)

    Also, I find this video really annoying. Why should every word/phrase I use be QUOTING the person who invented it or made it popular?

    "If you say 'fire', you are quoting Grog the caveman." No.

  4. Thank you! Love that the flowering of Tudor times really did produce a lot of, at least, writing and rewriting stuff that stayed around long enough in the aggregate to show these phrases. It was a great time, and of course his quick playwrighting (and the other hundreds of plays by other people that are lost) grabbed from what was around and did it so well! Of course, Chaucer, well, pretty good stuff and rich rich times. May I "quote" you (ha ha) in my Shakespeare in High Park annual walk? We read and talk and act out Shakespeare and we get lots of folks who've never read a phrase of it. We talk about the language a lot...and put it in context and this is a wonderful way to paint the time! Julia B


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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.