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Published February 12, 2019

Proverbial Folklife: “Old Sayings” Originated from Shakespeare

Ever heard the old saying, “Birds of a feather flock together” or “When the cat’s away the mice will play”? Chances are you’ve never really thought about where those phrases originated. We just grew up hearing them from grandma, papa or our parents.

Have you ever been “in a pickle” or had “too much of a good thing”? How about your friends and family visit and by the time they leave, they have “ate you out of house and home” and you couldn’t wait to “send them packin’”?. Such euphemisms and phrases have been a part of Southern and Appalachian culture for many family generations and are still used in our daily conversations. So how is Shakespeare related to these old Southern and Appalachian phrases?

We know a land of Elizabethan ways – a country of Spenserian speech, Shakespearean people and of cavaliers and curtsies. It is a land of high hopes and mystic allegiances, where one may stroll through the forests of Arden and find heaths and habits like those of olden England. We are speaking of the Southern highlands – Appalachia and Ozarcadia. Charles Morrow Wilson, 1929; “Elizabethan America”

During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, a great migration of immigrants left Great Britain to come to America. With the lure of adventure, these unwavering folks brought with them their customs, philosophy of life along with their Elizabethan language and pop culture.

The Elizabethan language was full of maxims, catchphrases, proverbs and adages. It was during this time when William Shakespeare was actively writing his famous poems and plays. Thus the language has remained until the present. Since part of their culture has been handed down by tradition from one generation to another, to this day, people still use an ample amount of proverbialisms in their everyday speech.

Such expressions as “Every dog has his day,” or “A friend in need is a friend indeed” are just as popular today just as they were when sidewalks were dirt paths, roads were paved with sawed boards and the mode of transportation was a horse and buggy. Migration to rural areas that remained primarily isolated, many of these sayings have persisted and are have become intertwined into the fabric of Southern and Appalachian dialect.

During the mid-1960s, the NC Department of Commerce published a booklet for thousands of tourist visiting the Tar Heel State. The booklet was written by Frank C. Brown, folklorist, titled A Dictionary of the Queens English. These booklets were provided to welcome centers for tourist to read.

Its preface reads as follows:

  • To outsiders it sounds strange, even uncultured. But what many North Carolinians do to the King’s English was done centuries ago by the Queen.
  • The correspondence and writings of Queen Elizabeth I and such men as Sir Walter Raleigh, Marlowe, Dryden, Bacon and even Shakespeare are sprinkled with words and expressions which today are commonplace in remote regions of North Carolina.
  • You hear the Queen’s English in the coves and hollows of the Blue Ridge and the Great Smokey Mountains and on the windswept Outer Banks where time moves more leisurely. (c1965: 2-3)

Shakespeare is not just limited to Appalachia and the South but the Ozarks as well. Appalachian English and Ozark English have long shared a close relationship in descriptions of language in the southern highlands.

These two regions are similar because most of the original settlers of the Ozarks came from southern Appalachia. Some archaic words from the 16th century are still used in the Ozarks such as mutts, blinked and sook.

The Ozarks diluted dialect is rooted in the language of the British Isles. Some examples of proverbs and proverbial “old sayings” that appear in Shakespeare’s works:

  • Dead as a door nail” came from Shakespeare’s play Henry IV: “I have eat no meat these five days; yet, come thou and thy five men, and if I do not leave you all as dead as a door-nail, I pray God I may never eat grass more.”
  • Birds of a feather flock together” came from Shakespeare’s play Henry IV: “….they flock together in consent, like so many wild-geese.”
  • They sent him on a wild goose chase” came from Shakespeare’s play Romeo & Juliet: “Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done.”
  • Better late than never” came from Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew: “Better once than never, for never too late.”
  • Love is blind” came from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice: “But love is blind, and lovers cannot see the pretty follies that themselves commit.”
  • Practice makes perfect” came from Shakespeare’s play The Two Gentlemen of Verona: “Experience is by industry achieved and perfected by the swift course of time.”
  • Practice what you preach” came from Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice: “It is good divine that follows his own instructions.”
  • Misery loves company” comes from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions!”
  • When the cat’s away, the mice will play” came from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet: “Playing the mouse in absence of the cat.”
  • “What’s done is done!” came from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth: “What’s done cannot be undone.”
  • “The bigger they are the harder they fall” came from Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet: “They that stand high have many blast to shake them, And if they fall, they dash themselves to pieces.”
  • “You ain’t nothing but a snake in the grass” came from Shakespeare’s play Macbeth: “….look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it.”

Even after 400 years, the words and phrases from many of Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays are still being quoted today. Most people quote Shakespeare without even knowing it. There’s no doubt Shakespeare was one of the most influential contributors to the English language and Southern dialect. Appalachians and Southerners have the only native connection to the same southern English low country counties where Shakespeare had once lived.

Although the original “ye old Elizabethan English” has constantly evolved and been diluted over the centuries, Appalachian and Southerners have taken Shakespeare and translated his original quotes and phrases to a language that is more vibrant and colorful with a flair of sassiness. So the next time you tell a “Knock, knock! Who’s there?” joke or expose the “naked truth” or maybe refer to someone with a “heart of gold“, chances are you are quoting Shakespeare.

Do you love all things Appalachia? Then you might enjoy Sitting Up With the Dead: Lost Appalachian Burial Customs and Folklife: The Lost Tradition of Lye Soap and Hog Killin’ Day.

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  • Hope Thompson


  • Trying to educate the world one SLICE OF HISTORY at a time! Hope Thompson is a freelance journalist focused on hidden history, Southern & Appalachian folklife, and Native American culture. She is a native of North Carolina and has been writing for this space for four years. She currently works in state government finance and owns a graphic design business. All my articles.

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