At Least You Speak Like You’re Well Read: From Literature to Lexicon

What’s in a name? Or a common expression? Or, for that matter, so many of the seemingly mundane words and phrases we use every day? We don’t often give a good deal of thought to such questions, and even if we did, we’d probably be surprised by just how much of what we say we owe to what someone else once wrote.

The truth is, literature has taught us how to talk, insofar as it has given us many wonderful ways to express ourselves, clarify our thoughts, and illustrate moments in a poetic way that others can easily understand. Sure, we all love to quote things from books, like the trademark passages of certain characters or famous first lines (second lines, not so much).

But I’m not talking (only) about quotes or idioms or allusions (“Achilles’ heel,” anyone?) or even clichés, but turns of phrase that are so much a part of how we communicate that they are used too often to be considered overused, and the origins of which we have long since forgotten, if we had ever considered them at all.

I mean, have you Googled “common phrases from Shakespeare” lately? (What, this isn’t how you spend your weekends?)

The Bard is, of course, credited with poetic phrasings like “All’s well that ends well” (great title…), but is more or less just as responsible for “all of a sudden” and many other expressions you might have used today or sometime this week: “sorry sight,” “foregone conclusion,” “as luck would have it,” “one fell swoop,” “fancy free,” “pure as the driven snow,” “high time,” “charmed life,” “lie low,” “send him packing,” “in a pickle,” “foul play” (and “fair play”), “wild goose chase,” “love is blind,” and “good riddance,” among dozens of others. So even in the most casual conversation, you’ll have a chance to reveal, humbly, that you are exceedingly well read.*

* The very phrase “exceedingly well read” first appeared in print (after appearing on stage) in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1.

Oh, and “what the dickens,” interestingly enough, also comes from Shakespeare—The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III, Scene 2—first appearing more than two centuries before Charles Dickens was born.

Of course, Bill Shakespeare might be the key coiner of phrases we still use today, but there are plenty of other examples—some more and some much less obvious than others—derived from or inspired by literature over the centuries. Just a few:

  •  “head over heels” (The Contemplative Man by Herbert Lawrence, 1771)
  • “barefaced lie” (Harry Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852)
  •  “bull in a china shop” (Jacob Faithful by Frederick Marryat, 1834)
  • “getting cold feet” (Seed Time and Harvest by Fritz Reuter, 1862)
  •  “catch-22” (from a certain 1955 novel by Joseph Heller)
  • “tilting at windmills” (Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote,* 1615)

*And then there’s the word “quixotic” itself.

So the next time you find yourself using a clever-but-all-too-familiar phrase, don’t give yourself “short shrift” (Richard III, Act III, Scene 4)—we’re all just a little more literarily literate than we might think.


Victor Wishna’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Post, NPR,, and others. His writing and editing services firm, The Vital Word helps find the right words for nonprofit, corporate, and individual clients. Follow him on Twitter: @vwishna.

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