The number of new words credited to Shakespeare is thought to be in the high hundreds, but add to that the 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 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.
1. From Smoke Into Smother
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.
2. Hold, or Cut Your Bowstrings
“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’s 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.
3. Like a Boar in a Frank
To feed like a boar in a frank is an old English proverb based on a line from Shakespeare’s Henry 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.
4. Men Shut Their Doors Against a Setting Sun
This is a line from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, whose title character, a wealthy Athenian nobleman, brings about his own downfall by showering his sycophantic friends and followers with so many gifts and lavish banquets that he eventually spends all his money. In the play’s opening act, one of Timon’s companions, the cynical Apemantus, mocks his childishness and gullibility and wisely forewarns him that his selfish friends are only interested in his wealth: “men shut their doors against a setting sun,” he points out, implying that when Timon’s cash has all dried up, his friends will undoubtedly turn their backs on him. This wry phrase eventually dropped into wider use as a proverbial warning not to be taken advantage of by those around you.
5. An Old Cloak Makes a New Jerkin
Old brass will make a new pan is an ancient English proverb probably dating back as far as the early Tudor period, if not before. It’s presumably based on this old adage that, in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff states that “an old cloak makes a new jerkin.” His words—or rather Shakespeare’s spin on an old proverb—soon dropped into wider use in English to imply that something seemingly old and worn out can always be rejuvenated or energized when it’s applied in some new or more interesting way (in this case, a jacket).
6. Shoot a Second Arrow (to Find the First)
“In my school days,” Bassanio says in The Merchant of Venice, “when I had lost one shaft [arrow] I shot his fellow of the self-same flight the self-same way … to find the other forth; and by adventuring both, I oft found both.” Inspired by these lines, the saying shoot a second arrow ultimately came to be used to mean “to use one thing to look for another,” or, by extension, “to make a more thoughtful second attempt.”
7. Small Birds Must Have Meat
Small birds must have meat is an old 17th-century proverb inspired by another line from Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. The original line, “young ravens must have food,” is spoken by Pistol, one of Falstaff’s friends, in response to Falstaff’s questionable decision to resort to cheating and trickery in order to improve his ailing fortunes.
Ultimately, Pistol’s words came to be used as a proverbial justification for doing something bad, or something that goes against your better judgment. But strangely, the saying became much more literal, meaning that even the smallest of us can’t be maintained with nothing.
8. Recover the Wind
To recover the wind of someone means to get the better of them, and comes from a lengthy central scene in Hamlet in which the eponymous prince discusses his plan to catch out his scheming uncle, Claudius, with his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The phrase itself apparently alludes to a practice used in hunting or stalking animals in which hunters would position themselves downwind from their quarry.
9. A Triton Among the Minnows
In Greek myth, Triton was the son and messenger of the sea gods Poseidon and Amphitrite. Although not a major player like his parents, Triton was nevertheless a fairly important deity in his own right, said by some to be responsible for the roaring of the waves and all the other sounds of the sea. A Triton among the minnows—a line taken from Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy Coriolanus—is ultimately a byword for an important person surrounded by inferiors, or, in other words, a literal big fish in a small pond.
But given the context of Shakespeare’s original line (as well as Triton’s subservient relationship with his parents) some have interpreted Triton among the minnows as referring to someone who only seems impressive because they’re surrounded by inferiors, rather than someone who appears to lead or to have outgrown their surroundings.
10. Will You Take Eggs for Money?
In the opening act of The Winter’s Tale, Leontes, the jealous and unpredictable King of Sicily, asks his young son Mamillius whether he will “take eggs for money.” Although he’s still very young—some productions of the play portray him as young as 6 or 7—Mamillius pluckily replies, “No, my lord; I’ll fight.”
The context behind their peculiar conversation is the fact that eggs (in Elizabethan England at least) were once so plentiful that they were virtually worthless, and so the idea of paying good money for them became a proverbially fairly foolish thing to do. Therefore Leontes is effectively asking his son whether he would ever let himself be taken advantage of.
To take eggs for money, meaning “to be fobbed off” or “to be imposed upon,” ultimately slipped into more widespread use in English in the 17th century, while Shakespeare’s original line, will you take eggs for money?, became a sarcastic way of questioning someone’s intelligence. It has long since dropped out of use, however—not least because the idea of paying for eggs is no longer a strange thing to do.
Are you a logophile? Do you want to learn unusual words and old-timey slang to make conversation more interesting, or discover fascinating tidbits about the origins of everyday phrases? Then pick up our new book, The Curious Compendium of Wonderful Words: A Miscellany of Obscure Terms, Bizarre Phrases, & Surprising Etymologies, out June 6! You can pre-order your copy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, or Bookshop.org.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.