header print

10 Unexpected Idioms We Inherited From the Renaissance

The expressions listed here all sound contemporary - you’ll even hear the kids saying many of them. And to most they are, but linguists and people like you interested in etymology know that appearances are deceptive, and even some words that sound fresh may actually be centuries old. This is the case for all 10 of these words and sayings, and we have the Renaissance to thank for their appearance in the English language.

The Renaissance was a cultural explosion, a golden age for all arts that traveled across Europe from the 14th and the 17th centuries, bringing an end to the Middle Ages. In English literature, this time was also characterized by the formation of Modern English. A writer you may be familiar with - one William Shakespeare - significantly expanded the English vocabulary with many fun and quirky words and phrases. So expect to see the Great Bard’s name appear more than once in this list.

Crocodile tears

Renaissance Idioms Crocodile eye
When we say that someone sheds crocodile tears, we mean that the person is insincere or fakes sorrow. However, this saying comes from a medieval myth stating that crocodiles shed tears while eating their prey. The source of this false belief is a 14th-century book named The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.
The novel retells the supposed travels of a brave adventurer through Asia, including the following passage about crocodiles, “These serpents sley men, and eate them weeping, and they have no tongue.” Mandeville’s image of a weeping reptile captured the interest of none other than William Shakespeare, who used the phrase crocodile tears in his works and turned it into the idiom we still use today.

Warts and all

Renaissance Idioms Portrait of Oliver Cromwell in armour
Portrait of Oliver Cromwell

If you’re willing to love someone, warts and all, it means that you’re accepting of them in their entirety, including the features or qualities that are not particularly appealing or attractive. The authorship of the phrase belongs to Oliver Cromwell, the English general who temporarily overthrew the British monarchy and ruled the British Isles as Lord Protector in the 1650s. While Cromwell had his portrait made, he ordered the painter to depict him realistically, without flattery, i.e. warts and all.

Related Article: 10 Ordinary Phrases With Extraordinary Histories

Play devil’s advocate

This expression sounds pretty contemporary, but it traces its beginnings back to the 16th century. Today, the phrase refers to deliberately arguing for a contentious opinion to provoke debate. But back in the 1500s, the devil’s advocate was an actual law profession.

Whenever a candidate was considered for sainthood within the Catholic Church, an attorney called advocatus diabolus was invited to participate. The lawyer’s part was to argue against the saint’s canonization by pointing out his or her flaws.

What the dickens!

Renaissance Idioms a portrait of Charles Dickens
Photo portrait of Charles Dickens

One would assume that this idiom must refer to Charles Dickens, the 19th-century writer. Surprisingly, this saying seems to be centuries older than the famous English author! Language historians have spotted this expression in Shakespeare’s works, so it dates back to at least the 16th century. But what does ‘dickens’ refer to? Researchers say it was likely a euphemism for the Devil.

Be true to yourself

It only makes sense that these wise words are uttered in a story where the main character is constantly confused about his role in life and everything going on around him - Shakespeare’s Hamlet. However, these words of advice appear in the play in a rather unexpected and ironic context.

In the play, it is Polonius, Ophelia’s father and by all considerations, the most tediously verbose character, who gives his son, Laertes, a long list of life advice as the youth departs for France. His final words are, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

Play it by ear

Renaissance Idioms playing the trumpet
Playing it by ear refers to someone’s flexibility in planning - rather than sticking to a schedule, you’re willing to decide your course of action on the spot. This general meaning of this phrase only emerged in 20th century America, but the expression was used in the context of music since the 16th century.
As a musical term, playing something by ear means a musician’s ability to reproduce a song they have heard without seeing the notes, just out of memory and perception.

By and large

Renaissance Idioms sailboat
By and large is pretty much a synonym of “to a great extent” or “all things considered,” but it didn’t always have these meanings. Like many contemporary idioms, such as loose cannon and taken aback, the phrase by and large began as a nautical term. The idiom dates back to the 16th century, and it consists of two parts:
Large - describes a vessel sailing with the wind propelling the boat from behind.
By - a ship that’s traveling in the general direction of the wind. 
Combined together, by and large is a situation in which a ship can sail in any direction relative to the wind.


Renaissance Idioms John Duns Scotus
Portrait of John Duns Scotus

You probably didn’t see this one coming, but the origins of this derogatory term take you back in time to one specific individual. The figure in question is the 13th-century Scottish Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus. In his lifetime, Scotus was a famous scientist honored with a papal accolade for his work in logic, grammar, theology, and metaphysics. After his departure, Scotus’ followers came to be known as Duns.

And you may be wondering by now, why did the followers of a famous scholar come to be a synonym for academic ineptitude? To be brief, you can blame the Renaissance. During the 16th century, most of Scotus’s ideas were proven wrong by other scholars, but the Duns clung to their ideas. As a result, they came to be mocked for their outdated ideas, and their name turned into profanity.

Related Article: The Origins of 8 Common Idioms

Hobson’s choice

Renaissance Idioms Portrait of Thomas Hobson (1544-1631)
Portrait of Thomas Hobson (1544-1631)
A Hobson’s choice is no choice at all, and the origins of this phrase are a fun little story that dates back to the 16th century. Back in the day, many people would hire a horse to travel. Thomas Hobson was in the business of hiring out horses in Cambridge. And Hobson was famous for never letting customers select which horse they would hire.
Instead, the customers had to commit to the horse that was nearest to the stable entrance. Essentially, they were given Hobson’s choice. And this way, one Englishman’s quirk created an idiom we still use today.

Pie crust promises

Renaissance Idioms nice pie crust
Promises are like pie crusts: easily made, easily broken. Before you say that this sounds just like a quote from Mary Poppins (1964), it’s actually much older. The phrase was first uttered as a complaint from a 17th-century political satire newsletter called Heraclitus Ridens. The words are attributed to Thomas Flatman, an English poet, who said, “He makes no more of breaking Acts of Parliaments, than if they were like Promises and Pie-crust made to be broken.”
Next Post
Sign Up for Free Daily Posts!
Did you mean:
Continue With: Google
By continuing, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy
Sign Up for Free Daily Posts!
Did you mean:
Continue With: Google
By continuing, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy