English is a remarkably rich and diverse language; so, for those who’d like to increase their knowledge and vocabulary acumen, there are some colloquial English words and phrases to learn that should be at the top of the list for any ESL student. Many of these you’ve already heard, but you may not know their history or their exact meaning. The genesis of phrases and expressions so many of us use daily, without even thinking about them, is a fascinating journey.
You may not crack open Shakespeare frequently, or even glance at a Bible, yet some of the most common expressions English speakers use are derived just from those two sources.
People in modern times may not easily get the allusions, but Shakespeare’s patrons, even if they couldn’t read, would know the biblical stories and phrases to which he was referring.
Some of the most common colloquial English words and phrases include:
Who can deny that "brevity is the soul of wit"? It’s self-explanatory, and part of a famous monologue in Hamlet.
Ever notice how candy at a kid’s birthday party disappears "in the twinkling of an eye"? Shakespeare used that expression in The Merchant of Venice, but this another instance where he took his inspiration from the Bible. That phrase appears in 1 Corinthians, and is used to describe how at the end of time, God will raise the dead for the last judgment - a concept with which Englishmen of Shakespeare’s time would have been very familiar.
If you’ve ever found yourself "in a pickle," that is, in a confused, mixed-up situation, don’t fret. Shakespeare’s characters in The Tempest had similar problems, as they described in using that phrase. (This is another instance of Shakespeare "borrowing" an expression from an older manuscript of another writer.)
If you’ve been warned by your frugal old grandmother, "neither a borrower nor a lender be," you can thank Will Shakespeare for placing those words on her tongue. That’s another expression from Hamlet that gained popular traction over the centuries. It was so popular that Benjamin Franklin used it as one of his aphorisms in his Poor Richard’s Almanac.
Ever pay a credit card bill with interest rates that made it seem impossible you’d ever get rid of the balance owed? You might think the credit card issuer wanted a "pound of flesh" from you. That phrase was popular centuries before that type of borrowing, and it was Shakespeare who popularized it in The Merchant of Venice.
So take a look at your language. Your life and vocabulary can be immensely enriched by the variety of English words and phrases in everyday use.