Winning English - Mastering Idioms, Slang, and Cultural References

The impact of Shakespeare on English • Swagger • Hot-blooded • Cruel to be kind • Neither a lender nor a borrower be • To thine own self be true

This week’s newsletter is inspired by Nelson, whose comments on the Winning English Facebook page reminded me of the impact of William Shakespeare on the English language. Thanks, Nelson!


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Shakespeare, of course, is the famous English playwright and poet who lived in the 1500s to early 1600s. (A playwright, by the way, is just a person who writes plays, as opposed to books. For some reason, though, we don’t call those people “bookwrights”. The English language isn’t always logical.)

Shakespeare invented or first wrote down hundreds of English words that are still commonly used today. Some sources say Shakespeare can claim sole credit for up to 1,700 English words. But this is unlikely. In many cases, the origin of a word is unclear or the word had already existed.

However, he was definitely the author of many idioms and sayings that just about every native English speaker uses all the time - even if she or he doesn’t know it was Shakespeare who wrote it.

Today, I’m going to cover just a few of these words and phrases, but like euphemisms from last week, I’ll have to revisit this topic in the future because there are so many examples.


Words brought to you by Shakespeare

As for words, let’s start with swagger. “To swagger” is to walk around or behave in a very confident way. If you are swaggering, people might think you are being overly proud and arrogant. Apparently the verb “to swag” already existed, but it meant “to sway back and forth”. Shakespeare altered and extended the meaning. Recently I saw this word used in a headline for international relations between India and China.

Shakespeare also came up with the adjective hot-blooded, which can mean passionate, easily excited, or easily angered.

Now, when this word first appeared, the character Falstaff says:

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

Notice how it was “hot-bloodied”, not “hot-blooded”? That’s just a reminder that language is constantly evolving.

Shakespeare is also given credit for creating many “un-” words in English. The prefix “un-” creates the opposite meaning of a word. One example credited to him is to undress. When you dress, you put clothes on. When you undress, you take them off. It seems strange that we didn’t have this word already!


Sayings brought to you by Shakespeare

“To be or not to be, that is the question” is a famous quote from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. But when I say Shakespeare created a variety of common English sayings, this isn’t what I’m talking about. Instead, there are sayings that are so commonly used today that people don’t even know they are quoting Shakespeare.

Let’s start with to break the ice. I’ve covered this phrase before in a previous Winning English. Though I’m not a great playwright, let me quote myself:

“To break the ice” means to start a conversation in a friendly way. When meeting strangers, it’s usually awkward, and we look for ways to create a warm feeling - “to break the ice” - with the person.

I have an example of using this saying from the world of international relations again - this time between the United States and China.

Another saying from Shakespeare is cruel to be kind. Maybe you’ve heard of the idea of “tough love”. In other words, sometimes we need to be mean to someone in order to get them to do the right thing or teach them the right lesson. To be “cruel” is to be very mean, but sometimes we feel that’s needed with friends or children. Sometimes we have to be cruel to be kind (although I hope not too cruel). This phrase is even the name of a well-known pop song. Give it a listen!

Finally, sayings by Shakespeare are so often used now that some of them have become what we call aphorisms. An “aphorism” is a short, easily remembered statement that communicates a moral message or a general truth.

From the play “Hamlet”, we have Polonius telling Laertes, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be”. The idea is that lending out money might ruin your finances - and maybe even ruin friendships. And borrowing money can make you vulnerable to lenders. Honestly, I don’t know where bankers or most homeowners would be if we all followed this advice!


As I mentioned, I’m only going to present a few words and sayings from Shakespeare this time. I’ll have to cover more in the future. But I hope this starts to give you a sense of just how important he has been to the English language.

Let me finish with another saying that has also become an aphorism: “To thine own self be true!” I’ll let you reflect on that one and hopefully take some inspiration from it. 😄


Did you know?

Did you know that there are “official” English dictionaries - but it depends on which kind of English you are speaking!

The Oxford English Dictionary is considered the definitive source on most English. It explores the history of words and provides their standard meanings.

However, here in the United States, our English is just different enough that our standard dictionary is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. It got its start when Noah Webster set out to document American English in a comprehensive way. His first edition came out in 1806.


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