Bard had a phrase for every occasion

18:13, Jan 21 2014
diana rigg
EXPRESSION ORIGINS: Diana Rigg as Lady Macbethh and Anthony Hopkins as Macbeth in a 1972 Royal National Theatre production of Shakespeare's famous drama.

Over the past few days - on the radio or the TV, I can't recall which - I've heard people misquote a couple of well-known phrases.

On the first occasion I heard someone claiming they were "on tenderhooks" when, of course, they meant they were "on tenterhooks", or in a state of suspense.

Only the next day there was some other person claiming that some dastardly deed had been conducted "in one foul swoop", which again is a commonly misquoted phrase. The correct expression is "one fell swoop", meaning in a sudden single action.

Now while I knew the sayings had been used incorrectly I was equally aware that I had no idea of the origin of these archaic phrases. So I did a bit of research, the results of which I am now about to inflict upon you.

A common misconception regarding "on tenterhooks" is that it has something to do with butchers hanging up meat to tenderise, hence the corruption to "on tenderhooks".

In fact, the phrase has origins in the north of England where, centuries ago, wool or linen was stretched on a "tenter" or frame to prevent it from shrinking as it dried. Needless to say, the hooks to keep the material in place were tenterhooks and their connection with a state of tension is easy to understand.


We can thank the Bard of Avon, William Shakespeare, for coining, or at least popularising, the phrase "at one fell swoop".

In his play Macbeth his character Macduff is shocked to hear his family and servants have all been killed, bemoaning:

"All my pretty ones?
"Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
"What, all my pretty chickens and their dam? At one fell swoop?"

The kite Macduff was referring to was the red kite, a hunting bird that was quite common in Tudor England, and the swoop was a description of the bird's sudden descent to fall upon its prey. Shakespeare was using one of his incomparable metaphors to describe the sudden and ruthless killing of Macduff's household.

In fact, there's another phrase of Shakespeare's that is often mutilated - "bated breath" from The Merchant of Venice is often misspelled as "baited breath", which conjures up unpleasant images of someone with worms hanging out of their mouth.

This misspelling even sneaked its way past the editors of one of the world's best-selling books, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It just goes to show; even best-selling author JK Rowling isn't perfect.

I was amazed to find how many phrases still in everyday use had their origins in, or were popularised by, the works of Shakespeare: A charmed life, Milk of human kindness and Be all and end all (are all from Macbeth); Break the ice and Cold comfort (Taming of the Shrew); Fancy-free (Midsummer Night's Dream); The game is up (Cymbeline); Heart of gold (Henry V); In a pickle (The Tempest); Lie low (Much Ado About Nothing); Naked truth (Love's Labour Lost) and What the Dickens (Merry Wives of Windsor).

Shakespeare is also credited with having contributed numerous words to the English language by simply changing nouns into verbs or verbs into adjectives, or adding prefixes or suffixes.

The A-Z of such common and seemingly unlikely Shakespearean words includes advertising (Measure for Measure) and zany (Love's Labour Lost).

More famously the Bard is often credited with having coined the phrase "making the beast with two backs" - a description of two people enjoying a bit of nookie (a euphemism which, incidentally, is sometimes said to have its origins in Cockney rhyming slang - nook and cranny, fanny) - in Othello but in fact the phrase was already in use at least 80 years earlier.

Coming as I do from a newspaper background I particularly approve of the supposed origin of the phrase "mind your Ps and Qs". Apparently the saying was derived from the early typesetting industry, where one would have to arrange the letters in reverse order to have them transfer on to the intended page. A common mistake was to switch the "p" and "q".

I've actually now spent some time trying to think of a suitable way to conclude this column but inspiration has eluded me. I have, you might say been hoist by my own petard, which is appropriate because it's a phrase Shakespeare uses in Hamlet to describe someone falling victim to his own plan.

The Timaru Herald