Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

Shakespeare Insult Kit


Here’s all you need to find the perfect insult. Just follow the instructions below. You don’t need to read across, necessarily. Just take one from each column, wherever you find an appealing word.  Thanks to my friend Lee G. for posting this.




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Sea Change

Signature of William Shakespeare from Page 3 o...

Signature of William Shakespeare from Page 3 of his Last Will and Testament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an undergraduate English major at UC Berkeley, it never occurred to me to be a STEM major. In fact, that acronym hadn’t been invented. It stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Word on the street today is that if you are not majoring in one of those areas you might as well crawl into a cave with your literature, philosophy  and history books and be happy and useless away from society. I contend that liberal arts majors have much to offer, even in today’s STEM-heavy environment: they are well rounded and can think and write clearly and logically.

Which brings me to Shakespeare. As a senior, I took a seminar with the best professor I ever encountered—as an undergraduate, graduate student or as an English teacher myself. (I’m talking about you, Joseph Kramer.) He once made the statement that any three lines of Shakespeare could be read as a microcosm of the world, and went on to demonstrate that point repeatedly and brilliantly.

Which brings me to today’s jargon. Recently I wrote about clichés and jargon that originated in Shakespeare’s plays. Of course they weren’t clichés at the time of their origin, but they did catch on. A more recent cliché, or bit of jargon, is “sea change.” I see it everywhere; no simple “changes” exist any more. They are all monumental, life-altering “sea changes.” If the price of oil were to drop five dollars a barrel, that would be a sea change. If Donald Trump were to fix him comb-over to the left rather than to the right, that would be a sea change. (If he were to remove the small animal that lives atop his head, I would grant that would truly be a sea change.)

The word originated in Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest.” Here is how he used it:

                                                    Full fathom five thy father lies,

                                                          Of his bones are coral made:

                                                   Those are pearls that were his eyes:

                                                          Nothing of him that doth fade,

                                                   But doth suffer a sea-change

                                                   Into something rich and strange.

We’ve lost the hyphen and also lost—or changed—the meaning. Until quite recently, “sea change” indicated an enormous transformation. Now, any old change will suffice. I wish the original meaning were still appreciated.  How long until someone writes about “an enormous sea change”?

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Clichés in Shakespeare

It’s a good idea to avoid clichés in your writing. They are stale words and phrases that add nothing to your message except, perhaps, a “ho hum” from your readers.

You might be interested to know that many of today’s clichés were coined originally by Shakespeare in his plays. They were fresh at the time and seemed so apt that they became commonplace; over the centuries they evolved into the rank of clichés. Many more than these can be found in his writing, but here are a few to think about:

Lay it on with a trowelAs You Like It

Lie lowMuch Ado About Nothing (“Nothing” in Shakespeare’s time also meant “noting,” or eavesdropping, a common theme in this play.)

Like the DickensThe Merry Wives of Windsor  This usage has nothing to do with Charles Dickens, who lived long after Shakespeare. “Dickens” is a synonym for the devil.

Makes your hair stand on endHamlet

Milk of human kindnessMacbeth

Much ado about nothingMuch Ado About Nothing, obviously

Mum’s the wordHenry VI, pt. 2

Night owlRichard II and Twelfth Night

Neither a borrower nor a lender beHamlet

Off with his headHenry VI, pt. 3

Rhyme nor reasonComedy of Errors

Set one’s teeth on edgeHenry IV, pt. 1

Short shriftRichard III

Something is rotten in the state of DenmarkHamlet

Star-crossed loversRomeo and Juliet

Bowels of the earthHenry IV, pt. 1

Devil incarnateHenry V and Titus Andronicus (the latter being the bloodiest play you will ever read: the queen’s sons are served to her in a pie. Yum!)

Slings and arrows of outrageous fortuneHamlet

There’s method in my madnessHamlet

The short and long of itThe Merry Wives of Windsor  Notice that over the years we have switched the two nouns.

To be or not to be: that is the questionHamlet

To sleep, perchance to dreamHamlet

Too much of a good thingAs You Like It

Truth will outThe Merchant of Venice

Vanish into thin airOthello, The Tempest

Band of brothersHenry V

Wear your heart on your sleeveOthello

What a piece of work is manHamlet   When Shakespeare wrote this, he meant that humans were incomparable, the highest form of creature on earth. Today, when we call someone a “piece of work” we mean the opposite of what Shakespeare stated, a person who is at best incompetent and at worst malevolent.

What are today’s takeaways? Two things:

1. Read Shakespeare or see one of his plays. No one did it better.

2. Avoid clichés like the plague.

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