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Ask a teen to read Shakespeare, and they'll say his work is full of cliches, mostly because terms he first penned continue to be used so widely today. "Break the ice," "fancy-free," "in a pickle," "live long day," "neither rhyme nor reason," "night owl," "play fast and loose," "primrose path," "seen better days," "set my teeth on edge," "tongue-tied" are but a small sample of idioms we now use every day thanks to Shakespeare. (A comprehensive list is available here.)
But there are a number of his famous idioms that linger in our language with meanings and spellings that aren't particularly obvious in 2015, because they include archaic words one never hears outside these Shakespearean phrases. With each term, I give the "eggcorn" version, a misheard or misunderstood incorrect variation. (For more on eggcorns, see The Eggcorn Database.) I also explain the phrase's meaning, giving special attention to the odd word you are likely to misspell.
bated breath (eggcorn: baited breath)
To hold one's breath in anticipation. Bated is a form of abate, to diminish or reduce.
much ado about nothing (eggcorn: much adieu)
Fuss, overreaction to something unimportant.
one fell swoop (eggcorn: one foul swoop)
Quickly arriving doom. Fell is an archaic term meaning deadly. The image is of a bird of prey attacking.
short shrift (eggcorn: short shift)
To make quick work of something or have little regard for it. Shrift is an archaic term that comes from shrive, to serve penance. The image is of being given an easy task to atone for sin, like reciting the Lord's Prayer once.
shuffle off this mortal coil (eggcorn: mortal toil)
To die. Coil/coyle in this era meant trouble, strife. The image is of drifting away from the struggles of life.
Other archaic idioms you might be misspellingShakespeare was neither the first nor the last to give us lasting idioms that include archaic words. Here are some others to be aware of, some first appearing as early as Chaucer (1343-1400), some only a century and a half ago.
damp squib (eggcorn version damp squid)
Something that flops or fails to work as expected. Literally, a dud firework because it got wet.
derring do (eggcorn: daring do)
Possibly coined by Chaucer. More on origins here
high dudgeon (eggcorn: high dungeon)
Might come from Welsh, or might derive from the term for a knife handle first recorded decades before Shakespeare's plays. More on origins here.
on tenterhooks (eggcorn: on tenderhooks)
In suspense. The image is of woolen cloth stretched on a special rack (tenter) after washing to prevent shrinkage.
vale of tears (eggcorn: veil of tears)
Deep suffering. Vale is a derivative of valley.
Which of these idioms have plagued you most? Do you try to coin idioms in your work? Any favorite Shakespeare quote you'd like to share?