This week I had the lovely, singular and cultural experience to go to a small play a colleague of mine was in called, “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged).” It was singular because I went by myself, my husband doesn’t like Shakespeare because he can’t understand all the ‘lingo’ used. Honestly though, I don’t think he tries very hard. Pretty much any British accent outside of Monty Python and he turns his ears off. I tried to get him to watch The Full Monty a few years back and he couldn’t make it through the first quarter of the movie because he didn’t understand what they were saying.
However, I’m willing to concede some idioms of Elizabethan English would be difficult to interpret, and I myself certainly do not claim to know/understand all of them. But, it’s like going to the opera when it’s in a foreign language. Just because you don’t understand the words the acting and emotion usually lets you know the intentions and motivations flying around the stage.
It is with this concept in mind that I thought consolidating (or plagiarizing) a handy guide to Shakespearean vocabulary would be useful- like being fluent in Pig Latin or Klingon, for all the times you go to Shakespearean plays or the Great Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon.
Wouldn’t you know, someone already thought it would be swell to put this type of thing together. Go to William Shakespeare Elizabethan Dictionary for the full list!
Popular phrases can be found at Phrases Coined By William Shakespeare.
Here are my top favorites.
A showy article may not necessarily be valuable.
The original form of this phrase was ‘all that glisters is not gold’. The ‘glitters’ version of the phrase long ago superseded the original and is now almost universally used.
Shakespeare is the best-known writer to have expressed this idea. The original Shakespeare editions of The Merchant of Venice, 1596, have the line as ‘all that glisters is not gold’. ‘Glister’ is usually replaced by ‘glitter’ in renditions of the play.
- An ill-favoured thing sir, but mine own
Literal meaning – it may not be good, but it’s the best I have to offer.
From Shakespeare’s As You Like It, 1600:
TOUCHSTONE: God ‘ild you, sir; I desire you of the like. I press in here, sir, amongst the rest of the country copulatives, to swear and to forswear: according as marriage binds and blood breaks: a poor virgin, sir, an ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own; a poor humour of mine, sir, to take that that no man else will: rich honesty dwells like a miser, sir, in a poor house; as your pearl in your foul oyster.
As pure as the driven snow ‘Driven snow’ is snow that has blown into drifts and is untrodded and clean. Examples of the precise text ‘as pure as [the] driven snow’ aren’t found in print until around the start of the 19th century; nevertheless, we have to thank Shakespeare for this popular simile. The complete phrase ‘as pure as the driven snow’ doesn’t appear in Shakespeare’s writing, but it almost does, and he used snow as a symbol for purity and whiteness in several plays. In The Winter’s Tale, 1611:
Autolycus: Lawn as white as driven snow.
In Macbeth, 1605:
Malcolm: Black Macbeth will seem as pure as snow.
Of course, the tradition of brides wearing white in many cultures stems from the association between the colour and purity. This was referred to as early as the 1400s, as in John Lydgate’s poetry for example, circa 1435:
Alle cladde in white, in tokne off clennesse, Lyche pure virgynes.
An alternative derivation of this simile has been proposed, which originates from an altogether different source. Mediaeval tanners used animal faeces in the leather tanning process – specifically dogs’ droppings, to which they gave the incongruous name ‘pure’. Some have speculated that pure referred to the white form of the said stools that used to be more commonly seen and that ‘as pure as the driven snow’ comes from that association. It doesn’t; the ‘pure’ name came from the purification of the raw leather caused by the enzymes present in the excrement and has nothing to do the ‘as pure as driven snow’.
Suddenly; in a single action.
This is one of those phrases that we may have picked up early in our learning of the language and probably worked out its meaning from the context we heard it in, without any clear understanding of what each word meant. Most native English speakers could say what it means but, if we look at it out of context, it doesn’t appear to make a great deal of sense. That lack of understanding of the words in the phrase is undoubtedly the reason that this is often misspelled, for example, ‘at one fail swoop’, or even, with some more justification as it might be thought to relate to birds, ‘one fowl swoop’. It isn’t difficult to find examples of ‘one foul swoop’. ‘Stoop’ is sometimes substituted for ‘swoop’ in all of the above variants, again drawing on avian imagery.
So, what’s that ‘fell’? We use the word in a variety of ways: to chop, as in fell a tree; a moorland or mountain, like those in the northern UK; the past tense of fall, as ‘he fell over’. None of those seems to make sense in this phrase and indeed the ‘fell’ here is none of those. It’s an old word, in use by the 13th century, that’s now fallen out of use apart from in this phrase and as the common root of the term ‘felon’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines fell as meaning ‘fierce, savage; cruel, ruthless; dreadful, terrible’, which is pretty unambiguous.
Shakespeare either coined the phrase, or gave it circulation, in Macbeth, 1605:
MACDUFF: [on hearing that his family and servants have all been killed] All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam. At one fell swoop?
The kite referred to is a hunting bird, like the Red Kite, which was common in England in Tudor times and is now making a welcome return after near extinction in the 20th century. The swoop (or stoop as is now said) is the rapid descent made by the bird when capturing prey.
Shakespeare used the imagery of a hunting bird’s ‘fell swoop’ to indicate the ruthless and deadly attack by Macbeth’s agents.
In the intervening years we have rather lost the original meaning and use it now to convey suddenness rather than savagery.
- Beast with two backs
Partners engaged in sexual intercourse.
This modern-sounding phrase is in fact at least as early as Shakespeare. He used it in Othello, 1604:
Iago: “I am one, sir, that comes to tell you your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.”
Shakespeare may have been the first to use it in English, although a version of it appears in Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, circa 1532. This was translated into English by Thomas Urquhart and published posthumously around 1693:
“In the vigour of his age he married Gargamelle, daughter to the King of the Parpaillons, a jolly pug, and well-mouthed wench. These two did oftentimes do the two-backed beast together, joyfully rubbing and frotting their bacon ‘gainst one another.”
- Beware the Ides of March
From Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, 1601. ‘Beware the Ides of March’ is the soothsayer’s message to Julius Caesar, warning of his death.
The Ides of March didn’t signify anything special in itself – this was just the usual way of saying “March 15th.” Each month has an Ides (usually the 15th) and this date wasn’t significant in being associated with death.
Months of the Roman calendar were arranged around three named days and these were reference points from which the other (unnamed) days were calculated:
Kalends (1st day of the month).
Nones (the 7th day in March, May, July, and October; the 5th in the other months).
Ides (the 15th day in March, May, July, and October; the 13th in the other months).
The military order Havoc! was a signal given to the English military forces in the Middle Ages to direct the soldiery (in Shakespeare’s parlance ‘the dogs of war’) to pillage and chaos.
The Black Book of the Admiralty, 1385 is a collection of laws in French and Latin that relate to the organisation of the English Navy. In the ‘Ordinances of War of Richard II’ in that book we find:
“Item, qe nul soit si hardy de crier havok sur peine davoir la test coupe.”
An English text which comes nearer to defining the term is found in Grose’s Military Antiquities Respecting a History of the English Army, 1801. Grose was quoting a translation of an Old French text by Thomas De Brotherton, the first Earl of Norfolk (Brotherton died in 1338):
“Likewise be all manner of beasts, when they be brought into the field and cried havoke, then every man to take his part.”
Shakespeare was well aware of the use of the meaning of havoc and he used ‘cry havoc’ in several of his plays. The ‘cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war’ form of the phrase is from his Julius Caesar, 1601. After Caesar’s murder Anthony regrets the course he has taken and predicts that war is sure to follow.
ANTONY: Blood and destruction shall be so in use And dreadful objects so familiar. That mothers shall but smile when they behold. Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war; All pity choked with custom of fell deeds: And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, With Ate by his side come hot from hell, Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war; That this foul deed shall smell above the earth. With carrion men, groaning for burial.
The term also appears in The Life and Death of King John, 1595:
“Cry ‘havoc!’ kings; back to the stained field…”
and in Coriolanus, 1607:
“Do not cry havoc, where you should but hunt with modest warrant.”
The term is the predessor of ‘play havoc’ (with). This is now more common than ‘cry havoc’ but has lost the force of the earlier phrase – just meaning ’cause disorder and confusion’.
Literally, pay the devil what you owe him. Used figuratively to mean ‘give back what you owe’, either money or favours.
From Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, 1597:
Constable: I will cap that proverb with ‘There is flattery in friendship.’
Orleans: And I will take up that with ‘Give the devil his due.’
- Good riddance
An expression of pleasure on being rid of some annoyance – usually an individual.
‘Riddance’ is now so completely associated with this little phrase that it is rarely, if ever, seen out alone. The only sort of riddance on offer these days is a good one. It wasn’t always thus. In the 16th century a riddance was a general-purpose noun and meant ‘deliverance from’ or ‘getting rid of’. The first adjectives to be linked with the word were fayre/happy/gladsome and, in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, 1600, Portia wishes the Prince of Morocco ‘a gentle riddance’.
A very early use of riddance comes in John Rastell’s poem, Away Mourning, circa 1525:
I haue her lost,
For all my cost,
Yet for all that I trowe
I haue perchaunce,
A fayre ryddaunce,
And am quyt of a shrew.
Shakespeare appears to be the coiner of ‘good riddance’, in Troilus and Cressida, 1606:
Thersites: I will see you hanged, like clotpoles, ere I come any more to your tents: I will keep where there is wit stirring and leave the faction of fools.
Patroclus: A good riddance.
The phrase is often extended and emphasized as ‘good riddance to bad rubbish’ or, as that extended form was first coined, ‘good riddance of bad rubbish’. Tobias Smollett used the phrase in a none too friendly comment, in The Critical Review, 1805:
But we are sorry … to consider Mr. Pratt’s writings as ‘purely evil’ … we should really look upon this author’s departure from the world of literature as a good riddance of bad rubbish.
Good riddance The American journalist and member of President Andrew Jackson’s ‘Kitchen Cabinet’, Francis Preston Blair, wrote an editorial in The Extra Globe, 1841. In this he appears to have been the first to use the precise version of the phrase that is most commonly used now:
[Following the withdrawal of members of a rival advisory group] From the bottom of our hearts we are disposed to exclaim “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
- Hoist with your own petard
Injured by the device that you intended to use to injure others.
The phrase ‘hoist with one’s own petar[d]’ is often cited as ‘hoist by one’s own petar[d]’. The two forms mean the same, although the former is strictly a more accurate version of the original source. A petard is, or rather was, as they have long since fallen out of use, a small engine of war used to blow breaches in gates or walls. They were originally metallic and bell-shaped but later cubical wooden boxes. Whatever the shape, the significant feature was that they were full of gunpowder – basically what we would now call a bomb.
The device was used by the military forces of all the major European fighting nations by the 16th century. In French and English – petar or petard, and in Spanish and Italian – petardo.
The dictionary maker John Florio defined them like this in 1598:
“Petardo – a squib or petard of gun powder vsed to burst vp gates or doores with.”
The French have the word ‘péter’ – to fart, which it’s hard to imagine is unrelated.
Petar was part of the everyday language around that time, as in this rather colourful line from Zackary Coke in his work Logick, 1654:
“The prayers of the Saints ascending with you, will Petarr your entrances through heavens Portcullis”.
Once the word is known, ‘hoist by your own petard’ is easy to fathom. It’s nice also to have a definitive source – no less than Shakespeare, who gives the line to Hamlet, 1602:
“For tis the sport to have the enginer Hoist with his owne petar”.
Note: engineers were originally constructors of military engines.
Having a passionate nature, or being inclined to quick temper.
Score another for the Bard of Avon. Shakespeare was fond of combining simple words into expressions of poetic imagery (sorry sight, fancy free, primrose path, to list just a few) – he was a consummate poet of course. ‘Hot-blooded’, or a Shakespeare wrote it ‘hot-bloodied’, first appears in The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1600:
Falstaff: The Windsor bell hath struck twelve; the minute draws on. Now, the hot-bloodied-Gods assist me!
The Dutch word ‘heetbloedig’, meaning ‘passionate; hot-tempered’ is recorded from 1619 (as heetbloedigh). It may be that Shakespeare got the word from the Netherlands but, given the dates and his track record, it is more likely that the expression travelled in the other direction.
- I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips
I see you are ready and anxious to depart.
Like greyhounds in the slips; the slips are the slip collars that are worn by greyhounds when they are about to be raced. When the dogs were used for hunting (coursing) these collars allowed the huntsmen to free a pair of dogs at a moment’s notice. The allusion in the phrase is to soldiers who are anxious to charge in to battle. The line comes towards the end of the famous ‘once more into the breach’ speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V, 1598.
- I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
Display your feelings openly, for all to see.
From Shakespeare’s Othello, 1604:
IAGO: It is as sure as you are Roderigo, Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago: In following him, I follow but myself; Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty, But seeming so, for my peculiar end: For when my outward action doth demonstrate The native act and figure of my heart In compliment extern, ’tis not long after But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve. For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.
In a quandary or some other difficult position.
The earliest pickles were spicy sauces made to accompany meat dishes. Later, in the 16th century, the name pickle was also given to a mixture of spiced, salted vinegar that was used as a preservative. The word comes from the Dutch or Low German pekel, with the meaning of ‘something piquant’. Later still, in the 17th century, the vegetables that were preserved, for example cucumbers and gherkins, also came to be called pickles.
The ‘in trouble’ meaning of ‘in a pickle’ was an allusion to being as disoriented and mixed up as the stewed vegetables that made up pickles. This was partway to being a literal allusion, as fanciful stories of the day related to hapless people who found themselves on the menu. The earliest known use of pickle in English contains such an citation. The Morte Arthure, circa 1440, relates the gory imagined ingredients of King Arthur’s diet:
He soupes all this sesoun with seuen knaue childre, Choppid in a chargour of chalke-whytt syluer, With pekill & powdyre of precious spycez.
[He dines all season on seven rascal children, chopped, in a bowl of white silver, with pickle and precious spices]
The figurative version of the phrase, meaning simply ‘in a fix’ or, in the almost identical 19th century phrase ‘in a stew’, arrives during the next century. Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundreth Pointes of Good Husbandrie, 1573, contains this useful advice:
Reape barlie with sickle, that lies in ill pickle.
Presumably, barley that wasn’t in ill pickle, i.e. the corn that was standing up straight, would be cut with the larger and more efficient scythe.
There are a few references to ill pickles and this pickle etc. in print in the late 16th century, and Shakespeare was one of the first to use in a pickle, in The Tempest, 1610:
ALONSO: And Trinculo is reeling ripe: where should they find this grand liquor that hath gilded ’em? How camest thou in this pickle?
TRINCULO: I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last that, I fear me, will never out of my bones: I shall not fear fly-blowing.
A return to the more literal interpretation of the phrase came about in the late 1700s. The Duke of Rutland had toured Britain and wrote up his experiences in a travelogue – Journal of a Tour to the Northern Parts of Great Britain, 1796. He was present at the disinterment of the 350 year-old body of Thomas Beaufort, which he claimed to have been pickled and ‘as perfect as when living’:
The corpse was done up in a pickle, and the face wrapped up in a sear cloth.
Nelson – Just nine years later the most celebrated personage ever to have been literally in a pickle – Admiral Horatio Nelson, met his end, although some pedants might argue that, being preserved in brandy, he found himself in more of a liquor than a pickle.
- In stitches
To be in stitches is to be in such a paroxysm of laughter as to be in physical pain. The allusion implicit in the phrase is to that of a sharp pain – like being pricked with a needle.
The phrase was first used by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, 1602.
MARIA: If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourself into stitches, follow me. Yond gull Malvolio is turned heathen, a very renegado; for there is no Christian, that means to be saved by believing rightly, can ever believe such impossible passages of grossness. He’s in yellow stockings.
Despite the usage in Shakespeare, the phrase didn’t become established in the language and there are no other records of it until the 20th century. This entry in The Lowell Sun, in July 1914, is the earliest non-Shakesperian record that I can find:
“There’s a new face among the members in Ben Loring, a natural-born comedian, who seems to have no difficulty whatever in keeping his audience in stitches of laughter and glee.”
- Like the Dickens
A lot; as in ‘hurts like the dickens’.
This phrase has nothing to do with Charles Dickens. Dickens is a euphemism, specifically a minced-oath, for the word devil, possibly via devilkins. Shakespeare used it in ‘the Merry Wives of Windsor, 1600:
I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of.
This is first found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, 1602:
“I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres, thy knotted and combined locks to part and each particular hair to stand an end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine.”
Shakespeare conjured up many images in his works; few though an have been more vivid than the mental picture of a fretful porcupine.
The allusion of makes your hair stand on end is to the actual sensation of hairs, especially those on the neck, standing upright when the skin contracts due to cold or to fear. This is otherwise known as ‘goose-flesh’ and the condition is, or rather was, known by the entirely splendid word horripilation. This was defined by Thomas Blount in his equally splendidly named book Glossographia, or a dictionary interpreting such hard words as are now used, 1656:
“Horripilation, the standing up of the hair for fear… a sudden quaking, shuddering or shivering.”
- Now is the winter of our discontent
The time of unhappiness is past.
Now is the winter of our discontentNow is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this sun of York was coined by Shakespeare and put into print in Richard III, 1594. The ‘sun of York’ wasn’t of course a comment on Yorkshire weather but on King Richard. In this play Shakespeare presents an account of Richard’s character that, until the late 20th century, largely formed the popular opinion of him as a malevolent, deformed schemer. Historians now view that representation as a dramatic plot device – necessary for the villainous role that Shakespeare had allocated him. It isn’t consistent with what is now known of Richard III, who in many ways showed himself to be an enlightened and forward-looking monarch.
“Now is the winter of our discontent” are the opening words of the play and lay the groundwork for the portrait of Richard as a discontented man who is unhappy in a world that hates him. Later he describes himself as “Deformed, unfinished, sent before his time into this breathing world, scarce half made up”. This deformity, which has now been shown to have been exaggerated or even deliberately faked in portraits of Richard, is given as the source of his supposed evil doings. He says that as he “cannot prove a lover” he is “determined to be a villain”.
The brooding malevolence that Shakespeare has Richard personify mirrors the playwright’s view of the state of the English nation during the Wars of the Roses.
- Out of the jaws of death
Saved from great danger.
The figurative phrases ‘the gates of death’ and ‘the jaws of death’ refer to the approach to danger or death. The earliest citation I can find to ‘the jaws of death’ is in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, 1602.
ANTONIO: Let me speak a little. This youth that you see here I snatch’d one half out of the jaws of death, Relieved him with such sanctity of love, And to his image, which methought did promise. Most venerable worth, did I devotion.
Something which is owed that is ruthlessly required to be paid back.
This of course derives from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, 1596. The insistence by Shylock of the payment of Antonio’s flesh is the central plot device of the play:
SHYLOCK: The pound of flesh which I demand of him Is deerely bought, ’tis mine, and I will haue it.
The figurative use of the phrase to refer to any lawful but nevertheless unreasonable recompense dates to the late 18th century.
- Salad days
The days of one’s youthful inexperience.
From Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, 1606:
CLEOPATRA: My salad days, When I was green in judgment: cold in blood, To say as I said then! But, come, away; Get me ink and paper: He shall have every day a several greeting, Or I’ll unpeople Egypt.
‘Salad days’ is used these days to refer to the days of carefree innocence and pleasure of our youth. It has also been used to refer to the time of material affluence in our more mature years, when the pressures of life have begun to ease – something akin to ‘the golden years’. Shakespeare meant the former, and the clue is in the colour. While he used green in other contexts to signify jealousy – ‘the green-eyed monster’ in Othello and, in Love’s Labours Lost “Green indeed is the colour of lovers”, it is used here to mean immature. The green of salad leaves, which are invariably short-lived, is an obvious allusion to youthfulness. Green is also used in other expressions to mean unready for use, for example, ‘green (unripe) corn’, ‘green (unseasoned) timber and ‘greenhorn’ (an inexperienced recruit).
The phrase ‘salad days’ lay dormant for two hundred years or more but became used widely in the 19th century; for example, this citation from the Oregon newspaper The Morning Oregonian, June 1862:
“What fools men are in their salad days.”
Salad Days was later used as the title of a highly successful is a musical, which premiered at the Bristol Old Vic in 1954. The music was written by Julian Slade and the lyrics by Dorothy Reynolds and Julian Slade. This was also the inspiration for the Monty Python spoof sketch Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days, in which the carefree young things featured in the musical were hacked to pieces in a typically gory Sam Peckinpah manner.
Be steadfast and of good courage.
From Shakespeare’s Macbeth, 1605:
LADY MACBETH: We fail! But screw your courage to the sticking-place, And we’ll not fail.
It is thought that Shakespeare was making the allusion to the screwing-up of the peg of a musical instrument until it becomes tightly fixed. If that is so then the phrase’s meaning is ‘keep screwing up your courage until it reaches the sticking place’ not, as is usually thought ‘affix your courage to the sticking place’.
- Short shrift
To make short work of – to give little consideration to.
Shrift– Not a word you hear every day. In fact, apart from in this expression, it is now so rarely used that it’s hard to think of a shrift that isn’t short. The verb form, shrive, is also now an almost forgotten antique. A shrift is a penance (a prescribed penalty) imposed by a priest in a confession in order to provide absolution, often when the confessor was near to death. In the 17th century, criminals were sent to the scaffold immediately after sentencing and only had time for a ‘short shrift’ before being hanged.
Shakespeare was the first to write it down, in Richard III, 1594.
RATCLIFF: Dispatch, my lord; the duke would be at dinner: Make a short shrift; he longs to see your head.
It doesn’t appear again in print until 1814, Scott’s Lord of the Isles:
“Short were his shrift in that debate. If Lorn encounter’d Bruce!”
That seems an uncommonly long time to wait for a phrase that is in regular use. We can assume that, given the gap, the phrase wasn’t part of the language in Shakespeare’s day, or for some time afterwards, and that he coined it himself. Some sources cite it as ’14th century’, but neglect to offer any evidence to support that.
It didn’t migrate across the Atlantic quickly either. The first citation there is from the Adams Sentinel, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, August 1841:
“The negroes were to be tried on Wednesday, and it was believed that a short shrift and a speedy doom would be awarded to the guilty.”
From Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, 1602:
“What dreames may come, When we haue shufflel’d off this mortall coile, Must giue vs pawse.”
In Shakespeare’s time ‘coil’, or coile’, or coyle’, meant ‘fuss’ or ‘bustle’. That usage was recorded in Michael Drayton’s Idea, the shepheards garland, 1593:
“You Will, and Will not, what a coyle is here?”
Shakespeare also used it prior to his ‘mortal coil’ expression, in King John, 1595:
“I am not worth this coyle that’s made for me.”
- Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep [a.k.a. Still waters run deep]
From Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Part II, 1592.
SUFFOLK: Well hath your highness seen into this duke; And, had I first been put to speak my mind, I think I should have told your grace’s tale. The duchess, by his subornation, Upon my life, began her devilish practises: Or, if he were not privy to those faults, Yet, by reputing of his high descent, As next the king he was successive heir, And such high vaunts of his nobility, Did instigate the bedlam brain-sick duchess By wicked means to frame our sovereign’s fall. Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep; And in his simple show he harbours treason. The fox barks not when he would steal the lamb. No, no, my sovereign; Gloucester is a man Unsounded yet and full of deep deceit.
- This is the short and the long of it
The substance; the plain truth.
From Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1600:
MISTRESS QUICKLY: Marry, this is the short and the long of it; you have brought her into such a canaries as ’tis wonderful. The best courtier of them all, when the court lay at Windsor, could never have brought her to such a canary.
To apply unnecessary ornament – to over embellish.
Shakespeare didn’t coin the term ‘gild the lily’, but he came as close to doing so in King John, 1595:
SALISBURY: Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp, To guard a title that was rich before, To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, To throw a perfume on the violet, To smooth the ice, or add another hue. Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light. To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.
The context of that speech in the play is King John’s satisfaction with his second coronation – “Here once again we sit, once again crown’d”. His courtiers aren’t so sure, calling the crowning ‘superfluous’. The use of Shakespeare’s text to denote unnecessary ornamentation is fairly straightforward. After all, ‘to gild’ is to cover with a thin layer of gold, so ‘gilding refined gold’ is obviously unnecessary. Unfortunately, remembering text from Shakespeare isn’t everyone’s forte and the quotation has become rather garbled. As the quotation above shows, ‘gild the lily’ doesn’t appear in the original.
The term ‘paint the lily’ was used in the 20th century, with the same meaning we now apply to ‘gild the lily’. Clearly, this is the correct quotation. The two versions coexisted for a time, although ‘paint the lily’ is now hardly ever used. The first citation I can find for ‘gild the lily’ comes from the USA, in the Newark Daily Advocate, 1895, in what appears to be a half-remembered version of Shakespeare:
“One may gild the lily and paint the rose, but to convey by words only an adequate idea of the hats and bonnets now exhibited absolutely passes human ability.”
A hopeless quest.
This phrase is old and appears to be one of the many phrases introduced to the language by Shakespeare. The first recorded citation is from Romeo and Juliet, 1592:
Romeo: Switch and spurs, switch and spurs; or I’ll cry a match.
Mercutio: Nay, if thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.
Our current use of the phrase alludes to an undertaking which will probably prove to be fruitless – and it’s hard to imagine anything more doomed to failure than an attempt to catch a wild goose by chasing after it. Our understanding of the term differs from that in use in Shakespeare’s day. The earlier meaning related not to hunting but to horse racing. A ‘wild goose chase’ was a chase in which horses followed a lead horse at a set distance, mimicking wild geese flying in formation. The equine connection was referred to in another early citation, just ten years after Shakespeare – Nicholas Breton’s The Mother’s Blessing, 1602:
“Esteeme a horse, according to his pace, But lose no wagers on a wilde goose chase.”
That meaning had been lost by the 19th century. In Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1811, he defines the term much the way we do today:
“A tedious uncertain pursuit, like the following a flock of wild geese, who are remarkably shy.”
The 1978 film ‘The Wild Geese‘ alluded to the phrase in its title. This refers back to Irish mercenaries who ‘flew’ from Ireland to serve in various European armies in the 16th to 18th centuries. The plot of the film involved a group of mercenaries embarking on a near-impossible mission. Of course, the near-impossible is no problem for action heroes and they caught their prey.
Hope you enjoyed the little trip down Shakespeare’s lane.