He Wrote Them First

800px-ShakespeareAlmost all American students get to know William Shakespeare, England’s most famous writer. Some fall in love with him – like my youngest daughter who read all of his plays (a story performed by actors in a theater) one summer. Others count the days (wait anxiously) until they can forget about him.

Many words and phrases (a group of words with meaning) we use today appeared first in one of his plays – about 1,700 of them according to one source (a place where you get information). Here are a few of the most common; I’ve given you the phrase, the play it appears in, a definition, and an example sentence:

  • With bated breath (The Merchant of Venice) – feeling anxious or excited.
    He asked her to marry him, then waited with bated breath for her answer.
  • It’s (all) Greek to me (Julius Caesar) – I can’t or don’t understand it.
    Prof, I know you explained this in class today, but it’s still Greek to me. Would you please explain it one more time?
  • Love is blind (The Merchant of Venice) – If you love someone, you don’t notice or see their faults (bad things about them).
    He’s not good looking and not very smart, but she still likes him. Whoever said that love is blind was right about that!
  • A heart of gold (Henry V) – to be very kind and generous (willing to help people by giving money, spending time, etc.).
    She would do anything for you: she has a heart of gold.
  • Break the ice (The Taming of the Shrew) – to make people feel more friendly and willing to talk to each other.
    Some of us were uncomfortable at first, but after Tom broke the ice, we all had a great time at his dinner party.
  • Neither here nor there (Othello) – not important.
    What I think about him is neither here nor there: he’s your friend, not mine.
  • All’s well that ends well (All’s Well That Ends Well) – a difficult situation that has ended with a good result.
    My car had a flat tire, we got here late, but we finally made it (arrived). Like they say, “All’s well that ends well.”
  • Too much of a good thing (As You Like It) – more of something than is good or useful; too much of something good may be bad.
    Exercise is good for you, but too much exercise may be too much of a good thing. Your body needs time to recover (return to a normal condition).
  • Wild goose chase (Henry IV) – a situation where you are looking for something that does not exist or that you probably won’t find, so that you waste a lot of time.
    What a wild goose chase! We looked all over town only to learn that the thing she wanted isn’t made any more.

How many did you already know? If you’d like to see more of Shakespeare’s phrases and sayings, try The Phrase Finder.

~ Warren Ediger – ESL coach/tutor and creator of the Successful English web site.

P.S. You can find more detail on some of these phrases in previous ESL Podcast episodes: It’s Greek to me (and here), neither here nor there, wild goose chase, and heart of gold.

Public domain painting of Shakespeare from Wikipedia Commons.


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12 Responses to He Wrote Them First

  1. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    Great, Warren. Good one! Bring more like this and get a reward.

  2. Dan says:

    Hi virtual companions.

    I know most of those because almost all are literally the same as in Italian.
    The different ones are:

    It’s all Greek to me becomes it’s all Arab to me.

    I am curious about the goose chase one. I haven’t heard of that one before
    a part for podcast 702.

    I do not like “Neither here nor there” It’s too long! better stick to the rule short and simple words.


  3. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    Yes, Dan, you’re good. Regards.

  4. peter says:

    Hi Warren ,

    I think I m right on the money if I say that Shakespeare is the most well known face in English literature.
    After centuries , he is still a household name. His fame transcends times and borders.

    Well , for centuries ,the predominate belief was that Shakespeare was a commoner with an exceptionally raw relent for words, a prodigy if you will.
    However, in the past one or two centuries the original belief got blemished by some theories that what attributed to Shakespeare is in fact the works of a highly educated man who was high born and was tight with the royals family at the time.

    The idea has brought about some controversy. Well ,historians take sides. Some defiantly opposed the idea , and some brandishky supported it.

    Well ,I guess , the speculation never prove wrong or right as there were not some extenuating evidence to prove it or their way.

    Well ,nobody will know the truth unless we manage to bend time and see it for ourselves. Right?

    Thanks Warren for the expressions Actually ,there is a lot of Shakespeare that has penetrated in the mainstream 🙂

    I take my leave
    P.s. In fact there have been some documentary and movies featuring the theory

  5. Thiago Messias says:


  6. Tania says:

    Hi! Thank you for these famous Shakespeare’s phrases.
    We use them (even in my country, too) without to know that we quote Shakespeare.
    I am sorry to say that I did not fall in love with Shakespeare to read his great masterpieces.
    But I have seen many movies with his works, reason for that I believe that I know Shakespeare.
    It’s not true. Like Aecio says “bring more like this”. It is useful to remember .
    Thank you.

  7. Tania says:

    Like many titles of the Last Laugh from the Learn English Magazine…
    One of the title was “No Strings Attached!”. I recognize that reading the joke I did not understand very well
    its meaning. But I received a message on email,
    “It’s our gift to you – 100% free, no strings attached!”.
    Reading again the joke from Learn English Magazine… it was a very clear explanation.

    Very good jokes from that we can learn a lot.
    Thank you dear Learn English Magazine team.

    And…I like Pao.

  8. Aecio Flavio Perim says:

    Hi, Thiago. You seem to be new here. Am I right or not? Welcome to the team.

  9. peter says:


    Thanks Lucy
    I really enjoyed the latest episode.


  10. lili:) says:

    Thank you Dear Warren for this very important lesson. I had followed your link to “The Phrase Finder” and saved the 135 Phrases coined by William Shakespeare in my computer. Thank you so much.

    I had misinterpreted the phrase “neither here nor there” because I translated it into Chinese myself and I thought it means “not good, not bad neither”. So if people asked me how’s the lesson, I would use the phrase neither here nor there if I thought it was just OK.

    Now I have learned its true usage I should not make the same mistake again.

    Talking about phrases, I find it funny that some Chinese really struggle to understand the phrase “I couldn’t agree with you more”.

    It means “I agree with you”. But some Chinese say it means “I disagree with you”.

    I tried and tried but still couldn’t convince them that it’s a positive comment.

    Perhaps our teachers here are better in explaining this phrase to my friends?

    Many thanks and see you again soon.

    Best Regards


  11. peter says:

    I see that the pumpkin fever started already.
    The supermarkets around town stocked up on them already.
    Every years one week or two weeks before Halloween, there is a pumpkin rush around here.
    The supermarkets put them out-front in metal crates. The overload metal crates get emptied out as fast as they get loaded up.
    There reason people rushed to buying them,I think, is that no one wants to end up with picked-overs. The picked over are mostly dented ,crooked , and damaged.
    Well , some times y can find Some jagged pumpkins sitting on the button of the metal craters all alone and neglected.
    U know ,in my book they make great scary
    Jack-o-lanterns for the top jagged edges.
    Well honest ,I don’t get pumpkins.
    So , the pumpkin part of the tradition is mostly for the kids.
    Grown ups celebrate the tradition in a whole different way.
    They throw Halloween parties
    I always RSVP Halloween party invitation. Well , if I m invited to. I don’t miss it for the world as it is a great place to meet girls. 😉
    Besides it is fun
    I always dress up as ” The Thor ” my favourite superhero character
    Sadly ,i haven’t received any invitations yet . I crosse my finger though.
    I was invited to this great Halloween party last year. It was being held on the party room of my friend’s building. He doesn’t own the building. He rented a unit there and there is this big party room on the ground floor that the residents of the building can book in advance for their events. As u provably guess , the demand for renting the room spikes around certain major holidays. Well ,one of them is Halloween. So, to make sure u can get the party room , my friend booked the room and put down a deposit two months ago.

    Yup , that is how crazy things get around
    Well ,
    It is a great tradition if one puts a right spin to it.

    I better get going
    I m late for work


  12. peter says:

    Guess what !!
    My best friend just called and told me that he is going to this great Halloween party.he was wondering if I wanted to tag along.
    I said : duh , ya!!!!
    I have still my last year custom. A good saving there. But I need to get a pair crazy contact lenses.
    The price of crazy contact lenses for Halloween is a it steep for my blood.
    It is 45 dollrs tax included. It is a lot of money to seend for just one party.
    I am of two minds. I may go with no contact lenses on. You know my natural eye color looks crazy enough :)))
    I m totally psych about the party.

    Ebough about me!
    His have you been ?

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