Four Common Idioms from Shakespeare

By Maeve Maddox

What do the following examples from the Web have in common?

Changing my mind is not something that happens often. It’s a simple case of me stating my point and refusing to budge an inch from it. 

US Recovery Cold Comfort for Unemployed

Are your kids eating you out of house and home during the summer? .

I made the mistake of buying him an egg salad sandwich, even though in my heart of hearts I knew he wouldn’t like or eat it.

Each one contains a phrase from Shakespeare that is still in widespread use.

refuse to budge an inch
In the frame story of The Taming of the Shrew, drunken Christopher Sly has been thrown out of an inn. An inn employee threatens to call the law on him, but Sly refuses to be intimidated by the threat. He tells the employee to call whom he will, but that he’ll “not budge an inch.” Sly uses the expression literally: he will not physically move from the place where he immediately falls asleep. In modern usage, the idiom is usually used figuratively with the meaning, “stand firm,” “refuse to change one’s mind on a matter.”

cold comfort
Shakespeare uses this expression in two plays: The Taming of the Shrew and King John.
In the Shrew, Grumio uses the expression in a lengthy and bawdy punning exchange with another servant. In King John, the king, dying of poison, suffers from a burning fever. When his attendants inquire how he feels, he responds hyperbolically, personifying Winter and chiding them for not asking winter:

to make his bleak winds kiss my parched lips
And comfort me with cold. I do not ask you much;
I beg cold comfort; and you are so strait
And so ingrateful you deny me that.

In modern usage, “cold comfort” is used figuratively in contexts in which something that is good in one sense is not adequate consolation for those who do not benefit from it. For example, the news of a drop in unemployment is “cold comfort” to people who remain unemployed.

to eat one out of house and home
In Henry IV, Part 2, Hostess Quickly of the Boar’s Head tavern has called the law on Falstaff because he has run up an unpaid bill of 100 marks. When the Lord Chief Justice asks for details, she says, “He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all my substance into that fat belly of his.”

In modern usage, the expression seems to be especially common in reference to teenagers.

in my heart of hearts
Shakespeare puts the expression in Hamlet’s mouth, although without a plural:

Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart.

Hamlet is praising Horatio for being the kind of man who can be trusted. In modern usage the phrase “heart of hearts” means, “the seat of one’s truest feelings.” The expression is especially popular on dating sites. For example:

The most important question to ask yourself is this: In your heart of hearts, do you believe that he or she is the one and only?

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!
He was not of an age, but for all time!—Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

William Shakespeare
Born: April 23, 1564
Died: April 23, 1616

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Sources of Titles Drawn from Shakespeare
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Thou Lily-livered Boy

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1 Response to “Four Common Idioms from Shakespeare”

  • Cygnifier

    Good article. It may be worth noting that “to eat me out of house and home” originally appears in Homer’s The Odyssey as Telemachus describes to the assembly of Ithaca the impact of the suitors for Penelope on their household.

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