Idioms by Famous Authors

When we think of idioms by famous authors, Shakespeare is probably the first one that comes to mind, and with good reason. We use so many of his idioms today – most of the time not even realizing that he created them. The list of his idioms is long; so if you don’t know all of them, don’t worry, that’s a forgivable offense 😉

Several years ago I also wasn’t aware of every single idiom that was crafted by Shakespeare. Besides our famous bard, however, let’s also look at other authors who have some memorable idioms.

International Authors who created Every-Day Idioms

For our first author, we’ll make a short trip to Spain, more specifically to Castilla de la Mancha where Don Quixote’s windmills stand.

Idioms by Famous Authors

Pot calling the kettle black: this idiom comes from Don Quixote by Cervantes. It means that we shouldn’t criticize others of something we might be guilty of ourselves.

From Spain, we’ll go to the USA where we find an idiom in another timeless novel.

Live off the fat of the land: this one comes from John Steinbeck’s famous novel Of Mice and Men. The meaning: living off the proceeds of the land without having to work hard for it. In the book, George tells Lenny they will live off the fat of the land, and he promises Lenny that he can have as many rabbits as he wants. It’s a heartbreaking scene at the end – ah, no spoilers! I won’t say more.

Now, we have to step into the time travel machine and travel all the way to ancient times.

Extend an olive branch: this phrase was first used in the Greek myth of Athena who offered an olive tree to the Athenians. It also hearkens back to the Biblical story of Noah. After the floods, a dove flies to Noah’s ark, holding an olive branch in its beak. This symbolic act showed that the flood waters had receded and it was safe to leave the ark now.

The meaning of this idiom is: extending a peace offering after a disagreement.

Noah's Ark

In J.R.R. Tolkien‘s fantasy world, we find some proverbs that may not be considered idioms but are still worth mentioning.

Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens

Yet oft in lies truth is hidden – the real-world idiom for this one is: many a true word is spoken in jest.

Finally, Shakespeare must be on this list! 🙂 The following known idioms are just a few examples because the real list is quite long.

Break the ice

Foul play

Lie low

Good riddance

Dead as a doornail

Send him packing

Mum´s the word

Final Thoughts

Idioms are an important part of a language. When studying a foreign language, one should also learn its idioms and preferably immerse oneself in the culture. The same counts for books. No one better than J.R.R. Tolkien demonstrated this with his fantasy world for which he had created a new language with its proverbs.

book series

Shakespeare’s idioms were crafted for his plays. His legacy lives on, not only in his work but in our daily conversations. Whether we’re happy or sad, relaxed or angry, some of these idioms are always a part of it.

“Did you just say my car was dirty?That’s the pot calling the kettle black, my dear!”

“Love is blind.” (another one by Shakespeare)

After I knew what John had done to me, I sent him packing.

Don’t worry, I won’t tell a soul. Mum’s the word.

Many authors also use or create great quotes in their books. In the next post, I’ll look at more of those.

Thank you for reading!

8 thoughts on “Idioms by Famous Authors

  1. Julius

    Haha, you made my day Cristine. Many of those idioms are quite funny. Also, I haven’t heard many of them but will start to use them in everyday conversation. I think it’s always nice to know where those idioms are coming from. For instance, considering those famous lines, like “Love is blind” or “Break the ice”, I didn’t know, they came from Shakespeare. One philosophical question from me: Why do you think those idioms were created in the first place? Just curious, if yo have an opinion about that. Nice post

    1. Christine

      Hi Julius,

      I’m happy you enjoyed my post 🙂
      Shakespeare created or popularized these idioms for his plays. “Love is blind” was actually first found in Geoffrey’s Saucer’s The Merchant’s Tale, but Shakespeare made the expression more popular when he used it in his plays Henry V, The Merchant of Venice, and Two Gentlemen of Verona.

  2. Thimo

    Thanks Christi,
    I never really thought about where Idioms came from, but I think it´s knowledge that shouldn´t be lost. I know that my grandmother always was pretty surprised of my lack of knowledge in this topic, I guess they learned much more of those kind of things back then in school…
    Do you know any kind of book that is about idioms? Maybe some kind of list with their described origin?

    Take care

    1. Christine

      Hi Thimo,

      It’s interesting, isn’t it, to find out the origins of these idioms? 🙂 There are plenty of books on idioms which list them and share their origins. I’m not sure which one is the best since I haven’t read any of them, but I’ll check about it.
      Thanks for your comment!

  3. Ceci

    Lovely! Never really thought of where these idioms came from – just simply used them because so many of them are embedded in our vocabulary and speech. I am really proud of myself because I know most of them (:-)

    My favorites from your list (and there are many) are – good riddance( I add “to bad rubbish”), pot calling the kettle black, dead as a doornail, mum’s the word, extend an olive branch………I could go on and on…….(:-). Thanks for making me smile

    1. Christine

      Hi Ceci,

      Yes, it’s funny, we never think of were these idioms come from although we use them in our every day language all the time 🙂 I find it so interesting to learn about their origins.
      Thanks for your comment!

  4. Femi

    I knew ‘wear my heart on my sleeve’ originated in Shakespeare’s Othello but your article made me google his most popular idioms and you’re so right, I had no idea so many popular idioms can be traced back to him. And we’re not talking about idioms that rarely appear in conversation, I’m talking about ‘apple of my eye’, ‘faint-hearted’, ‘lie low’ or ‘laughing stock’, idioms that pop-up quite a lot in our day to day conversations.

    I can only imagine how hard it is for a non-English speaker to figure out the meaning of all these idioms, it can be downright confusing if your English is rusty to understand what ‘live off the fat of the land’ refers to.

    Keep up the good work,

    1. Christine

      Hi Femi,

      Yes, every-day idioms such as ‘lie low’ and ‘foul play’ stem from Shakespeare’s plays. It’s fascinating to find out the origins of those idioms. And I agree, for a non-English speaker to understand ‘live of the fat of the land’ he or she must have read the book first. It can be confusing to understand the context of some sayings without knowing where they come from as is the case with ‘live of the fat of the land.’
      Thank you for your comment!

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