Number one for English language teachers

Theme-based expressions: Shakespeare special

Type: Article

Tim Bowen gives us too much of a good thing this month, as we read to our heart’s content about Shakespearean language in this special edition of Your English.

‘A note was found beside the body. Foul play is not suspected’. Both foul play (meaning either violent or criminal actions that cause someone’s death) and fair play (behaviour that is fair and honest) can be found in the works of Shakespeare. This is not to say that Shakespeare himself coined the terms but he used them around four hundred years ago and they are still widely used in English today.

Expressions such as a sea change (a very big or important change, especially in something such as politics, economics or business), a sorry sight (something that is unpleasant to look at), in a pickle (in a difficult situation) and a wild goose chase (an attempt to find something that does not exist or that you are very unlikely to discover) are also Shakespearean.

If you are up in arms about something (angry and complaining about it) or you send someone packing (force them to leave a place), you are using terms used by the Bard. People who make their feelings obvious to other people are said to wear their heart on their sleeve and, if you do something as much or as often as you like, you do it to your heart’s content. Of course, you can have too much of a good thing (to over-indulge in something good so that it has a negative effect on you) but that may not be the be all and end all (the most important thing) to you and, indeed, it may be neither here nor there (not important because it is not relevant).

There may be method in your madness (although you might seem to be doing something in a strange way, there is a good reason for doing it) or you might achieve something in one fell swoop (with one sudden action or on one single occasion). Something that happens very quickly can happen in the twinkling of an eye and if something disappears completely it can be said to vanish into thin air.

If doing something is very easy, it is meat and drink to you but, if it is difficult it may take forever and a day to do it (a very long time). If you don’t understand something, you can say ‘It’s all Greek to me’ and if something such as a sound is unpleasant or annoying, it sets your teeth on edge, as in ‘The sound of chalk squeaking on a blackboard really sets my teeth on edge’.

If someone or something has seen better days, they are not in as good a shape or condition as they used to be, or as they were in their salad days perhaps (when they were young and inexperienced).

Things are rarely a foregone conclusion (a result that you can be certain about before it happens) but perhaps it is high time to recognize that while Shakespeare may rarely have people in stitches (laughing uncontrollably), his contribution to the language was monumental. Love is blind, as they say, and thereby hangs a tale …

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Dear Michael,
    Fair play for your comment, we always appreciate it when a user wears their heart on their sleeve. It can take forever and a day to get your head around Shakespeare, but sometimes that's neither here nor there!

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  • Really interesting.I was up in arms to hear that my partner's son's English class was reading Romeo and Juliet in Shakespearian English( In a German grammar school.) After reading the article I can now see some method in their madness.Or are they on a wild goose chase.
    To me it's a foregone conclusion that it will be all Greek to them.

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