Cliche Sunday

As you know, for this post I usually pick a subject and find sayings and the meanings behind them relating to that subject. Today I thought I would go in reverse: pick an origin and see how many sayings came from that particular origin. I was especially interested in ones I wasn’t aware had come from that source. So what origin did I choose?

Why, the Bard himself, of course.  The powerful effect Shakespeare had on language, writing and culture made it seem only natural to decide on him. Many of these cliches are ones he did “coin;” however, Shakespeare was never adverse to stealing a phrase, polishing it a bit and making it his own.

A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse: an ironic phrase when one is in need an unimportant item. As with many cliches, it reverses the original; as in Richard III, Richard seriously did need a horse!

               CATESBY:  His horse is slain, and all on foot he fights,
Seeking for Richmond in the throat of death.
Rescue, fair lord, or else the day is lost!

KING RICHARD III: A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!  –1594

All of a sudden: suddenly. Shakespeare thought this a much more poetic way to say ‘suddenly’. It seems he was correct as, after being used in The Taming of the Shrew, it has stayed in our vocabulary for over four hundred years. A few years before Shakespeare coined the saying in 1596, it was used in a slightly different way; ‘the’ instead of ‘a’. In  “John Greenwood’s Collection of Articles [of Henry Barrow and others], 1590, we find:

I was compelled to answere of the sodaine vnto such articles.”*

Dead as a doornail: dead, devoid of life, finished.  A phrase that Shakespeare definitely borrowed. Our first known use of this saying came from the 14th century, by William Langland. Langland found the phrase in a French poem he translated and  liked it so much he used it in one of his own poems in 1362. After Shakespeare used it in King Henry IV, Dickens was the next celebrated author to use it. Indeed, Dickens spent a bit of time on it, wondering why a doornail would be in such a condition as dead.

             Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail   –A Christmas Carol

Previously to being ‘dead as a doornail,’ the phrase was also found to be ‘dead as a dodo,’ which due to their extinction makes a viable comparison. So why is a doornail dead? Below is the best reason I can find:

           Doornails are the large-headed studs that were used in earlier times for strength and more recently as decoration. The practice was to hammer the nail through and then bend the protruding end over to secure it. This process, similar to riveting, was called clenching. This may be the source of the ‘deadness’, as such a nail would be unusable afterwards.*

The beast with two backs: partners engaged in sexual intercourse. I had to include this one, as I had no idea it dated back to Shakespeare–and beyond. It was first found in  Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, which was written around 1532. I can certainly see it appealing to Shakespeare’s earthy side. He used it in Othello, 1604.

But, for my own part, it was Greek to me: It was unintelligible to me. In Julius Caesar, 1601, Shakespeare takes advantage of the fact his characters were Roman and of course would not, and would not want to, speak Greek. Many countries have notational  languages that they “can’t” speak, although frequently it is more a national disdain than an actual inability to learn that language.  “It’s all Greek to me” has replaced previous notational language in most English-speaking countries in modern times.

Eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog: an archetypal way of suggesting ancient spells and enchantments. This  is of course from Macbeth, when the three old witches are stirring their bubbling cauldron. I love the imagery of this scene, so this phrase definitely had to be included. I do wonder at the time if Shakespeare had any idea that “eye of newt” would be used in thousands of books and movies.  The original writing is still by far the best. Three horrid old crones out on a moor, the courage it must have taken to approach them.

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Second Witch:
Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.*






Filed under Cliche Sunday

2 responses to “Cliche Sunday

  1. I love this post! There are so many popular sayings that are still around today but people have no idea what they really mean or where they originated from. Such a good idea for a post.


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