Shakespeare is celebrated as a great playwright who bequeathed us a rich gallery of characters and an unparalleled collection of dramas, written in a language which has inspired and influenced generations of poets.
However, Shakespeare gave us another gift for which we should be grateful: he helped forge not only the language of great poetry but also the language all of us continue to use day by day.
Finally, an article that doesn’t claim that Shakespeare made up all the words and expressions whose first appearance in print are in his plays, but that highlights how the importance of Shakespeare’s works ensured that many expressions are still used in English.
What is going on here? Did Shakespeare invent the phrases, or did he snatch them up from current idiom? And did they survive into modern speech because Shakespeare set them in the amber of his immortal lines, or would they have made it anyway? There is no simple answer to the first question.
For instance, the Oxford English Dictionary cites Shakespeare as the first user in print of the phrase “the seamy side” (it’s in Othello), but did he “rescue” it from someone else, or did he invent it himself? There is no way of knowing. So many plays of Shakespeare’s contemporaries have disappeared – of the 46 known to have been put on in 1598 only nine have survived – and it is quite possible that the phrase “seamy side” was in one of them, or was floating around in 16th-century idiom.
The second question is not particularly easy to answer either. I suspect, though, that in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries Shakespeare was better known than he is now. It is striking how often writers of those times lard their prose with Shakespearean phrasing, which was obviously crammed into their heads.
Yes, every educated English speaker knew Shakespeare, so it’s no surprised that they absorbed many of his expressions and passed them on.