linguistics and lexicography Love English

Quoting Shakespeare – of icebreakers and idioms

© PHOTOALTOIn the second of her posts about the links between the language of Shakespeare and the language of today, BuzzWord author Kerry Maxwell considers the Bard’s role in coining idioms we use without a second thought.


English is a language rich in idioms and fixed phrases, language forms that trip unconsciously from the tongues of native speakers and are such a hallmark of authentic English that any learner wanting to speak naturally will need to get to grips with at least some of them. Imagine a social situation where you found a way to deal with initial awkwardness, and later describing it without using an expression like break the ice? (“erm, I told a joke or two at the beginning because I could see people were feeling uncomfortable and I needed a quick way to make them feel more relaxed …” – not nearly as economical or colourful as “I told a joke or two to break the ice”).

We use these kinds of expressions in contemporary English without a second thought, yet few of us realise that a good number of them originated with Shakespeare himself, starting their linguistic journey as experimental language brought to life by 16th century voices.  It turns out that we owe the existence of break the ice (an idiom often identified in learner materials as common and useful to learn) to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. In the play, Petruchio makes it his mission to win the affections of the cold, hard-hearted older sister Katherina, and is challenged to:  “… break the ice, and do this feat, Achieve the elder, set the younger free …”.  In fact, the phrase was originally associated with making passages for boats, when it was often necessary to quite literally break ice in rivers. The Bard cleverly adopts this as a metaphor for finding a way to break through to the ‘cold’ Katherina. Over time, this figurative use has eclipsed any literal sense and the expression is now firmly associated with negotiating a way through barriers of social awkwardness, even giving us the related noun icebreaker.

This is just one example, but there are many others. Ever had a friend to stay and been eaten out of house and home? Well, you’ve got Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part II to thank for that vivid way of describing your mate’s impact on your shopping bill. Is the result of an election a foregone conclusion? Whether yes or no, it would be unlikely to be described as such were it not for the impassioned words of Othello. Was an account of a comical situation so hilarious that it had you in stitches? This phrase had its first outing in Twelfth Night, where Shakespeare describes a paroxysm of laughter so intense that the physical pain of it resembles being pricked with a needle. It’s an interesting one because, like many new words and expressions today, it didn’t initially embed itself in the language, only to resurface after a very, very long time in the early 20th century (though the time gap hasn’t always been quite so wide, in the new millennium we’ve similarly revisited expressions which first appeared significantly earlier but lay dormant for some time, e.g., redact, Common Era, third gender).

So, just by mastering a few fixed expressions in everyday English, like telling someone that we’ve been sent on a wild-goose chase,  explaining that there’s method in our madness, or declaring that something has simply vanished into thin air, it turns out that all of us are capable of, quite literally, ‘quoting Shakespeare’ …

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Kerry Maxwell

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