Monday, 19 May 2014


Having taught English Language and Literature for many years, I have often been asked what makes the English language special and why Shakespeare is so highly valued. There are many ways to answer, but one of my favourites for both questions is because of idioms in English. 

Here's a good working definition of the word idiom, courtesy of 

"An expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of individual words, such as kick the bucket, or hang one's head."

English is one of the most idiomatic languages on the planet. Native speakers use idioms all the time and they come from a huge range of sources: sport, politics, warfare, religion, nature, etc. They often cause great confusion to language students because their component parts - the separate words - have totally different meanings when seen out of context. Most English course books make their students aware of idioms by giving them "It's raining cats and dogs" which is a virtual cliche for language teachers. My personal top five are these (and I am assuming you know the meaning of each of them):

A piece of cake
[Something] costs an arm and a leg
Let the cat out of the bag
[You] hit the nail on the head
Bite off more than you can chew

While acknowledging that English is a very idiomatic language, a less well known fact is that so many idioms in use today were first coined by Shakespeare. As a writer in love with language, he, more than anyone before or since, created his own idioms, huge numbers of which are in daily use all over the English speaking world. More than twenty years ago, a British author writing about the history of the English language compiled this (very small) list of Shakespearean idioms. I'm sure you will recognise many of them:

"If you cannot understand my argument, and declare It’s all Greek to me, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger, if your wish is father to the thought, if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise - why be that as it may, the more fool you, for it is a forgone conclusion that you are (as good luck would have it) quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you believe that the game is up and the truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have set your teeth on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then - to give the devil his due - even if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then - by Jove! O Lord! Tut, tut! for goodness’ sake! what the dickens!* but me no buts - it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare."

Robert McNeil: The Story of English

When our KYUEM students go to England to study, they will undoubtedly be exposed to all kinds of new language experiences - not all of them pleasant. However, to use yet another idiom, it's a fair bet that they will come back with a richer and more detailed knowledge of the language than before. I hope that whatever subjects they intend to study, their increasingly idiomatic use of English is something they will enjoy and use productively in the years to come.

*In case anyone thinks that "What the dickens" is not Shakespearean at all, but refers to Charles Dickens, the idiom used here is a contraction of "the devil's kin," (in other words, the devil's family).

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