Tuesday June 6, 2006

Antedating Shakepeare

Today on a couple of different blogs I came across links to a list of 150 everyday expressions that supposedly originated in the works of Shakespeare.  It's an interesting list, and Old Will was surely a very inventive writer, but I was suspicous that some of the expressions might not have been coined by him.  I turned to the obvious resource (the OED) and discovered that at least eighteen of the expressions have earlier citations.  Whoops!

I've listed the ones I found below.  There may be more, but the OED isn't a perfect resource for this kind of search.  For one thing, some of the quoted expressions are more than a few words long and so unlikely to appear as entries in a dictionary.  For another, just because Shakespeare is the earliest quoted reference for it in the OED isn't proof that some turn of phrase wasn't simply current around the time he was writing.

In each case, I've listed the expression in bold, followed by the year of the pre-Shakespeare reference in the OED, the earlier quotation (when it seemed interesting), and the work it was found in:

  • fool's paradise:  1462, in the Paston Letters
  • eye-sore:  1530, John Rastell's A new boke of purgatorye
  • budge an inch:  1590 (4 years before Shrew), "bouge not a foot" in Robert Greene's The historie of Orlando Furioso
  • cold comfort:  1325, "colde watz his cumfort" in Early English alliterative poems in the west-midland dialect; 1571, the literal phrase "cold comfort" in Arthur Golding's The Psalmes of David and others, with J. Calvin's commentaries
  • dead as a doornail:  c1350, in The romance of William of Palerne
  • devil incarnate:  1395, in John Purvey's Remonstrance against Romish corruptions in the Church
  • done to death: a1175, "Hu hi michte hine to deaðe ȝedon" in Cotton Homilies.  That's an eth in the word deaðe (death) and a yogh in the word ȝedon (which I believe is the old fashioned Germanic past participle gedon)
  • elbow room:  c1540, in Andrew Boorde's The boke for to lerne a man to be wyse in buylding of his house
  • Halcyon days:  1578, "Alcyon days" in Richard Day's A booke of christian prayers
  • hold a candle:  1550, in Robert Crowley's The way to wealth, wherein is taught a remedy for sedicion
  • not slept one wink:  1303, "...Ne slepte onely a-lepy wynke" in Robert Manning of Brunne's Handlyng synne
  • Greek to me:  1600 (only one year before Julius Caesar, but still...) in Thomas Dekker's Patient Grissil, a comedy
  • laughing stock:  1533, in John Frith's An other boke against Rastel
  • my own flesh and blood:  a1300, "your aun fless and blod" in Cursor Mundi
  • put out the light:  this exact phrase doesn't occur, but the OED does have a citation from 1526 for the phrasal verb put out meaning 'extinguish a flame', in The pilgrimage of perfection
  • short and the long of it:  c1500, "Thys ys the schorte and longe" in William Hazlitt's Remains of the early popular poetry of England
  • the naked truth:  1436, in the Rolls of parliament.  What's more, this phrase comes from the classical Latin nuda ueritas, used in Horace's Odes.
  • neither here nor there:  1583, in Arthur Golding's The sermons of J. Calvin upon Deuteronomie

I don't mean this list as some kind of attack on Shakespeare or his influence—he's probably second only to the King James Bible as a source of common, pithy English quotations—but just as it's important to give credit where it's due, it's also important to make sure credit is due before giving it.

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» Tenser, said the Tensor looked a little more closely at the list of cliches from Shakespeare that I posted earlier in the week from kottke.org remaindered links
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» plagiarist! from yosefblog
figures. even in inventing clichés, Shakespeare was a plagiarist.... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 8, 2006 10:05:17 AM


There's another idiotic "Shakespeare invented everything!" site here.

Posted by: language hat at Jun 7, 2006 7:51:49 AM

Perhaps, like Thomas Edison, he merely took out the patent on everything.

Posted by: includedmiddle at Jun 7, 2006 8:18:38 AM

Renowned etymologist Leonardo Da Vinci actually coined all of those expressions. To discredit him, the church altered preexisting documents to make it *look like* Leonardo had not invented them. That's what those monks were actually doing. You can read additional details in my forthcoming novel.

Posted by: Dan Brown at Jun 8, 2006 3:22:51 PM

Although all answers to this question are, by definition, speculation, I wonder if those phrases would still be in use today if they had not been used by The Bard?

Posted by: Jason at Jun 8, 2006 4:49:07 PM