Taurida National University English Department
Shakespeare’s language as a source of English idioms:
the problem of origin identification
The topicality of this research is determined by great attention focused on the issues of the English phraseology. In the present article a new problem is introduced. The point is that some English phraseological units (idioms) which are considered to have taken their origin in the works by Shakespeare in fact date back to earlier times and their origin can be traced in other sources. Our goal is to scrutinize and give the analysis of the mentioned above units regarding their origin, initial and present meaning.
English and American linguists use the term “idiom” which is rather polysemantic, but in the current view it means “a phrase or word used in a special meaning that you cannot understand just from knowing the dictionary definition and the grammar of the parts” (Alice Maclin Reference Guide to English) or any string of words for which the meaning of the whole expression can not be determined from the meanings of individual formatives that make up the string. Idiomatic usage means using words and phrases in the forms commonly used whether or not these forms appear to be the only logical ones.
Russian and Ukrainian linguists prefer the term “phraseological unit” or “set word complexes” (ÓÑÊ). In the fundamental works by V.V. Vinogradov, A.V. Kunin, N.N. Amosova and others the theory of phraseology was profoundly developed, English phraseological units were studied and classified structurally, functionally, semantically, etymologically.
When classified etymologically most of the English idioms are considered to have literary origin. The experts believe that 150 set expressions in English were accepted from Shakespeare’s works. That is a remarkable contribution that needs a proper study. Shakespeare’s language was the subject of many researches (the most recent and interesting is one of Frank Kermode, an English critic handling the elusive art of poetry and its timeless, uniquely humanly message). F. Kermode in his book Shakespeare’s language underlines the playwright’s obsession with the language seen in “its pace, its sudden turns and backtracking, its metaphors flashing before us and disappearing before we can grasp them”. The critics mention that Shakespeare wrote with great speed and facility, rarely crossing anything out. This accounts for his impatience with the language, “associative powers of words, the ways in which their meanings could be stretched” (F. Kermode), inventions of his own words and expressions.
Shakespeare gave life to some sayings which carry the power of his wit, vivid imagination and bright imagery: “Conscience does make cowards of us all”, “To be or not to be…” (Hamlet), “A devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (The Merchant of Venice), “Coward dies many times before his death” (Julius Caesar), “Love laughs at locksmiths” (Venus and Adonis), “All the world’s a stage” (As you like it).
The origin of the other expressions is disputable. We can definitely prove that they were registered by the great dramatist, but the issue whether he coined them is still open for discussion.
To identify the etymology of the certain expression we are to bear in mind the following:
1. Literary works can only register idioms that function in the language, the origin of them and chronology may not be certain. For example, in Much Ado about Nothing Benedick says: “Hang me in a bottle like a cat, and shoot at me” - that is the reference to the archery sport rendered in the set expression “room to swing a cat” (now more widely used in the negative – “no (not) room to swing a cat” – meaning cramped quarters). The “bottle” is a leather sack in which a live cat was placed to make a swinging target when the sack was hung from a tree. According to the records, the saying was common those days. The idiom has been used by many writers throughout the centuries and is still popular in literary works. In The Taming of the Shrew Katarina addresses her father: “Nay, now I see she is your treasure, she must have a husband; I must dance bare-foot on her wedding day and for your love to her lead apes in hell”. The expression “to lead apes in hell” was common in the times of Shakespeare (Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing uses the same expression). It is an old belief that women dying maids lead apes in hell. Nowadays the idiom can be considered out of current use.
2. The writer or poet could adapt the phrase current in those days and then the expression was preserved throughout the centuries in the modified form. Shakespeare uses the expression “to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve” which is a modification of the phrase of that time “to pin a thing upon one’s sleeve”. In Middle Ages the knights pinned the ribbons of their ladies to the sleeves or helmets (hats) to show their devotion and lofty love to them. In Othello Iago announced his devotion to poor Othello and pretended he wore his heart on his sleeve, in Love’s Labour’s Lost Biron says about Boyet: “This gallant pins the wenches on his sleeve” meaning that the latter shows his love to all maids (wenches).
3. The author can create a phrase that later becomes a set one. It was an old belief that green-eyed people are jealous but the authorship of the idiom “green-eyed monster” (Othello) (meaning jealousy) belongs to Shakespeare: “Yago. O! Beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock, The meat it feeds on…”
To sum up all the mentioned above the conclusion can be drawn that we should study the origin of English idioms taking into account not only the literary works in which the set expressions were fixed or due to which they became widely-spread but also some cultural and historical aspects of the language development.