55 Common Phrases You Might Not Realize Came from Books
common phrases

55 Common Phrases You Might Not Realize Came from Books

common phrases

You don’t need to be a Shakespeare aficionado to fit a fancy literary quote into a conversation. You probably already used a common phrase that came from a book today without even knowing it. 

Authors have a gift of making up a word or a phrase and getting it to catch on. This happens so much that some of the most common phrases and words used today stem from books dating back to ancient Greece.

Keep reading to see how many of these common phrases and words you never knew came from a book.

1. Extend the olive branch

Oh, come on, make peace already! To extend the olive branch goes way back before your mother asked you and your siblings to forgive one another. The phrase comes up in Greek mythology when Athena gifts the olive tree to the Athenians. It also comes up in the Bible when a dove brings an olive branch to Noah to show that the flood receded and it was safe for the animals to go back to the land.

2. I can’t do [X] to save my life

You tried to learn a new skill, and for whatever reason, you can’t get the hang of it? It happens to the best of us! When the irritation comes, you say, “I can’t do this to save my life!” 

This common phrase comes from the book The Kellys and the O’Kellys by Anthony Trollope, written in 1948. Needless to say, people have been using this phrase for years now.

3. Go down the rabbit hole

Oh no! A situation is spiraling out of control and you’re about to “go down the rabbit hole.” This phrase originates from one of the most beloved children’s classics, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Lewis Carol coined this term as the title of the first chapter in his book where Alice enters Wonderland by following the rabbit.

4. Nerd

It’s interesting to see how some words have changed from being insulting to one of pride. Take the word “nerd,” for example. People who are considered nerds now are some of the most powerful and successful people in the business realm. 

Interestingly enough, Dr. Seuss was the author who made up the word. In his book, If I Ran the Zoo, Dr. Seuss uses it to describe a creature from the land of “Ka-Troo.”

5. Catch-22

To find yourself in a catch-22 usually means that no matter what choice you make, something terrible is going to happen. The phrase comes from the book Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. 

The whole motivation behind the title was that when bureaucracy gets awful enough, problems start getting assigned numbers. This was the case Heller ran into when trying to pick the number to use in the title of his book. He had to go through several numbers before all involved agreed on using the number 22.

6. Cyberspace

The internet was still in its early stages when “cyberspace” hit the English language. Cyberspace was a term used in the book Neuromancer by William Gibson. It is the virtual reality dataspace the character finds himself in. Today that is how many describe the internet.

7. Cliffhanger

If you’re a writer and you want to leave readers on the edge of their seats, you end the story on a cliffhanger. Before it was used to describe the agonizing wait before the next season of Game of Thrones, it was from Thomas Hardy, a novelist in the late 1870s. In his book A Pair of Blue Eyes, he literally leaves one of his characters on a cliff.

8. By the skin of my teeth

Whew! That was a close one! You’ve probably uttered the common phrase, “by the skin of my teeth” if you’ve gotten too close to comfort in a bad situation. This phrase comes from none other than the Book of Job in the Bible. It is here where the tormented hero Job describes the number of times he’s missed death by a tiny margin.

9. There is method in my madness

Ever look at someone with a raised eyebrow, not entirely sure of their idea or plan? That’s what the case was in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where Polonius wasn’t so sure about Hamlet’s antics. Polonius says, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”

10. Curiosity killed the cat

Have you ever met an inquisitive person who tries to investigate everything? This phrase is used to tell them that such investigations can often lead to an unfortunate incident. But you may not know that it came from a play, Every Man in His Humor, by Ben Johnson.

However, in the play, the phrase is written as: “Care’ll kill a cat.” Today, it has been changed to “curiosity killed the cat.” 

11. You too, Brutus?

Betrayal hits differently when it comes from a close friend or loved one. The shock that comes from that betrayal hurts more than the stab of an enemy, especially if it comes from the person you least expected. This was the fate of Julius Ceasar in William Shakespeare’s play Julius Ceasar when his friend Brutus stabbed him. 

Brutus conspires with other people to assassinate Ceasar because they fear he is becoming too powerful. They all take turns in the stabbing. Brutus dealt the final blow, and before he breathed his last, Ceasar said, “Et Tu, Brute?” which means “you too, Brutus.”

These days, this question is used differently to express disappointment or shock. \

12. Suffer fools gladly

When someone says, “they do not suffer fools gladly,” they are simply saying they do not tolerate foolish people or stupid behavior. This phrase originated from the Bible in the 2nd letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, where he speaks against false apostles. It states: “For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise” (2 Corinthians 11:19).

In this context, however, it sounds like sarcasm because Paul is telling them that despite all their wisdom, they let others take advantage of them. 

13. Paddle your own canoe

This saying refers to the importance of personal freedom and independence. This phrase first appeared in The Settlers in Canada, an 1844 children’s novel by Frederick Marryat, which narrates the life of a family that emigrated to Canada and settled near Lake Ontario. 

A character in the book illustrates the differences between the European and Native religions, after which he says everyone should paddle their own canoe. This means that based on these differences, everyone chooses their own path as they all go together. 

14. All that glitters is not gold

This expression depicts that sometimes things that appear great on the surface are not what they seem on the inside. Shakespeare first used the phrase in Merchant of Venice. However, the original expression in the play is “all that glistens is not gold.” Both mean the same thing. It’s like saying Potato, potahto.

The line appears in the scene when suitors have come to take the test set up by Portia’s father, where they are made to choose one casket out of the three caskets presented before them. The three caskets are made of gold, silver, and lead, respectively. The Prince of Morocco picks the gold casket only to see a skull and a letter with the quote, “all that glistens is not gold.”

15. Big brother is watching 

George Orwell first used this phrase in 1984 to describe the totalitarian power exercised by the government in that society. The posters of this phrase are displayed to show people that their every move is under strict surveillance. 

These days, it is used to tell someone that you are watching their every move and that there is no hiding place for them. Perhaps you have once used it to threaten your younger siblings that you will find out if they touch anything in your room without your permission. 

The reality TV Big Brother integrated this concept into their shows. 

16. Jekyll and Hyde

Jekyll and Hyde originated from the 1886 novel by Robert Louis Stevenson titled Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which follows the story of Dr. Henry Jekyll, a well-respected doctor, and his other evil personality, Edward Hyde. People use this to describe someone exhibiting two different personalities depending on the time of the day you met them. 

In psychology, it describes the mental illness, dissociative identity disorder. 

17. Pound of flesh

Ever tried to borrow money from someone, and they demand to be paid with something difficult in return when you default? Something like a pound of flesh? A terrible, terrible place to be in! But what you may not know is that the phrase was first used in Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare. 

Shylock, the money lender, demands a pound of flesh from Antonio based on their agreement that if the latter doesn’t pay back the money in 3 months, he will take a pound of his flesh.

18. Achilles heel

We all have our weaknesses, our Achilles’ heels— a spot that depicts our vulnerability which can lead to our downfall. This phrase stems from the character of Achilles in Greek mythology. 

In Homer’s Illiad, Achilles’s mother, Thetis, a sea nymph, attempts to immortalize her son by dipping him in River Styx. However, because she is holding him by the heels, that part of his body is untouched by the water, thus making it his weak spot. As a result, Achilles dies from a wound to his heel in a battle. 

19. Gargantuan

Sometimes when you want to describe how big something is, some words like “enormous” wouldn’t just cut it. So what do you do? You go with “gargantuan” because it is going to give the person an idea of the size of what you are describing. 

The word originated from The Life of Gargantua and the Heroic Deeds of Pantagruel, a 1534 novel by François Rabelais which tells the story of a giant called Gargantua. 

20. Robot

Your initial thought about a robot would have been that the word was coined by a tech bro while designing a robot. But, surprisingly, the word was coined by a writer. Czech writer Karel Čapek used it in his science fiction play, R.U.R (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti) . This means Rossum’s Universal Robots in English. The novel was published in 1920 and has been translated into many languages. 

21. Be-all and end-all 

If you’ve ever written a love note to your lover and included “be-all and end-all of my existence” in the letter, you have Shakespeare to thank for it. The phrase appears for the first time in Macbeth. Macbeth uses it himself while he is planning to murder King Duncan. He says, “… that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all.” 

By saying this, Macbeth believes that the death of King Duncan will be the final action that will help him achieve his goal. 

22. Boredom

Charles Dickens first used boredom in his 1853 novel Bleak House to describe a state of being bored.

23. Doublespeak

You must have attempted to doublespeak once in a while. Perhaps that was when you wanted to water down, obscure, or disguise the true state of a situation. These days we hear things like “somebody unalived another” to mean they committed murder. It’s like using a euphemism. This originated from the concept of “newspeak” and “doublethink” in George Orwell’s 1984.

24. Full circle

Have you ever used the expression “come full circle” or heard someone use it? Shakespeare coined the phrase, which was first used in King Lear by Edmund when he realizes that his nemesis has caught up with him after plotting against his half-brother Edgar. He says, “The wheel is come full circle, I am here. “

25. Meme

Nowadays, everyone uses memes on the World Wide Web to deliver their thoughts on a hot topic without including a caption. But can you guess its origin? Richard Dawkins coined meme in his book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, to describe the spread of cultural ideas and phenomena. 

26. Oliver Twist

While some dictionaries explained this as slang that means being drunk or pissed, in some cases, people use it to describe a greedy and insatiable person. This is because Oliver Twist’s character in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens asks for more food by saying, “Please, sir, I want some more,” to the surprise of his master. After all, in that orphanage, they usually have little food.

27. The world is your oyster

When the world is your oyster, it means you are young and have the liberty and opportunity to create a bright future for yourself. The original saying is “The world’s mine oyster,” stated by a character, Pistol, in Shakespeare’s comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, during his conversation with Sir John Falstaff. He says, “why then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.”

28. Oedipus complex

A child being attached to their opposite-sex parent and trying to compete with their same-sex parent for their attention is not new. Oedipus complex describes such behavior according to Sigmund Freud’s theory about the phallic stage of a child’s psychosexual development. This originated from the character of Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King . Oedipus’ curse is that he will sleep with his mother and kill his father.

29. Cyberpunk

This word is used to describe a sub-genre of sci-fi that depicts a decaying society with high tech and inhabited by low lives. It was coined by Bruce Bethke in his 1982 story titled “Cyberpunk.”

30. Freelance

These days, many people are freelancing instead of working for just one organization, so we use the word daily. One would have thought it was coined n recent times, but surprisingly, the word came from Walter Scott’s 1820 book Ivanhoe. A character used it to describe a mercenary whose skills are available for a fee instead of working for one Lord. 

31. Bated breath 

You must have used this phrase when trying to describe to your friends how anxious you were while anticipating something. It was first used by Shakespeare in Merchant of Venice when Shylock mocks Antonio by saying that since he has now come to him for a loan, even after the way they treated him. He asks whether he has to bow humbly to him “…With bated breath and whispering humbleness.”

32. Odyssey

We sometimes use odyssey to describe an eventful or complicated journey or experience. It came from Homer’s epic poetry, The Odyssey, which narrates the long and adventurous journey of the Greek hero Odysseus. 

33. American dream

Everyone wants to live the American dream and achieve their life ambitions no matter the class of family they come from. This has become the national ideal of the United States. James Truslow coined the term and popularized it in his 1931 book The Epic of America, stating that everyone should have equal opportunities irrespective of class.

34. Trojan horse

In The Odyssey, Odysseus devised a plan to construct a giant wooden horse called the Trojan Horse for Greek soldiers to hide inside and be kept at the gate of Troy. This disguise helped them to win the war. Thus, a trojan horse has been named after a malware that disguises itself as a computer program.

The scariest thing about downloading a program from unknown sites on the internet is that you may end up downloading this malware. You stand the risk of exposing your device to a hacker who is trying to gain access to your personal details. 

35. Wear your heart on your sleeve

If you wear your heart on your sleeve, it means you do not hide your emotions. You show your feelings and vulnerability. The first known usage of the phrase is in Shakespeare’s Othello. Iago, one of the characters, confesses to the readers that he will keep his emotions hidden because if he reveals what he is thinking, he’d give his intentions away. He says, “… But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve. For daws to peck at. I am not what I am.” 

36. Hard-boiled

Have you ever used “hard-boiled” to describe a heartless person? I bet you have! The word was first used as an adjective describing a callous person by Mark Twain while criticizing Matthew Arnold

37. Malapropism

For comic effect, we often employ malapropism by incorrectly using a word in place of a similar-sounding word. Sometimes it is intentional; sometimes, it isn’t. Whichever it is, did you know the term originated from a book? 

In The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a character named Mrs. Malaprop misuses similar sounding words. Sheridan formed it from the French word “mal à propos,” which means inappropriate.

38. Mentor

In recent times, everyone is advised to get a mentor who will provide them with life and career guidance. Mentorship has benefited many people just like it benefitted Odysseus’ child in The Odyssey by Homer. The term originated from the story. 

In this epic poem, Odysseus hands over his son Telemachus to a character called Mentor, his close friend, to cater to him before setting out for war. 

39. Milk of human kindness 

This expression was first used by Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. As the husband hesitates in murdering King Duncan, she tries to persuade him by saying, “… Yet do I fear thy nature, It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness. To catch the nearest way.” 

40. Keeping up with the Joneses

You will agree that it is sometimes irritating to see someone who is often trying to keep up with their friends by doing things beyond their power just to level up with them. In that case, we say they are trying to keep up with the Joneses. This phrase comes from the comic strip, Keeping up with the Joneses, created by Arthur R. Momand. 

It narrates the story of a family called the McGinis, who tried so hard to keep up with their neighbors, the Joneses. The comic strip was first published in 1913.

41. Serendipity

Have you ever discovered something by pure serendipity? The word was first used in Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo by Michele Tramezzino in 1557.

The English version is titled The Three Princes of Serendip. It tells the story of three princes always making unexpected discoveries

42. Puking

It first appeared in As You Like it by Shakespeare. A character Jacques used it here:

“All the world’s a stage

And the men and women ,merely players:

… At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms. “

43. Narcissism

Dealing with a narcissistic person is the worst experience ever! But you wouldn’t be surprised by their personality when you learn about the origin of the name. The word originated from the work of a Roman poet Ovid, Metamorphoses. It narrates the story of Narcissus, who is the object of desire of many lovers because of his beauty.

He, however, rejected all their advances. Finally, he is punished by the goddess Nemesis because he rejected Echo, who withdrew from the world on account of this rejection. Narcissus is made to fall in love with his reflection in a pool of water for life by the goddess. 

44. International

A philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, coined the word in his An Introduction to Principles of Morals and Legislation, published in 1789. He used it to describe “international law,” which he says is a better expression than “law of nations”.

45. Devil incarnate 

As the phrase implies, this is often used to refer to an evil person. Shakespeare coined the phrase in Titus Andronicus. Lucius used it to describe Aaron. He says: O worthy Goth, this is the incarnate devil That robb’d Andronicus of his good hand; 

If you’re familiar with the story, he is behind the conspiracy to destroy the Andronicus family. 

46. Scaredy-cat

This is a term used to describe someone that is easily frightened. I am sure you must have used it once or twice to describe your friend who is always scared of embarking on an adventure. But did you know that it originated from “The Waltz,” a 1933 short story by Dorothy Parker? A character in the story said “… it’s so nice to meet a man who isn’t a scaredy-cat about catching my beri-beri.”

47. Workaholic

Have you ever met a workaholic? The only thing they talk about is work, work, work. That is what their whole life is about. Wayne Oates, a psychologist, is credited to be the originator of the word in his book Confessions of a Workaholic, published in 1971, which talks about work addiction.

48. Vanish into thin air

This phrase, which means to disappear without a single trace, was first used in Shakespeare’s Othello. However, there is a slight difference between what appeared in the text from how we use the expression these days. In Act 3, the Clown tells the musician to leave by saying, “Then put up your pipes in your bag, for I’ll away. Go; vanish into air; away!”

49. Robotics

Robotics is an interdisciplinary field that focuses on designing and constructing robots. What are the odds that a writer coined the word? Just like its neighbor, “robot,” Isaac Asimov, a sci-fi writer, coined robotics in his 1941 short story “Liar!”

50. Echo

We use echo in our everyday conversations to either talk about the repetition of sound or the repercussion of an action. The term originated from the story of Echo, a nymph in Greek Mythology. 

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, we are told that Hera, the goddess punished Echo by taking away her speech ability and making her start repeating the last words of others instead. She prevented Hera from spying on Zeus’s affairs by distracting her with endless conversations. 

51. Heart of gold

We often use this phrase to describe someone with a good heart. It was first used in Shakespeare’s play Henry V by a character called Pistol to describe King Henry. 

He says, “The king’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold, a lad of life, an imp of fame …” Unknowingly to Pistol, he is speaking to the King himself. King Henry disguised himself to gauge the morale of his soldiers before the Battle of Agincourt. 

52. Peeping Tom

Nothing is more frustrating than having a neighbor who secretly watches you undress through their window. A very creepy behavior just like that of their patron saint, Peeping Tom. The term was derived from the Legend of Lady Godiva

Lady Godiva tries to persuade her husband to reduce the taxes levied on people in the city. The husband, in response, says he would do so if she could ride naked through the marketplace. The townsmen are implored during the time of the incident to stay indoors, but one citizen, Peeping Tom, didn’t heed this advice as he peeped out the window to look at her nakedness. 

53. Utopia

We all dream about living in a perfect world in peace and in perfect social conditions. However, that world doesn’t exist because it is Utopia. 

This word was coined by Thomas More which he used as the title of his 1516 book. Utopia describes an imaginary, perfect and self-contained community where the inhabitants share a common culture and have a better way of life. 

54. Pandemonium

This word originated from the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton and describes the capital of hell. We use it these days to describe a chaotic or confusing situation. 

55. One fell swoop

Shakespeare has given us a lot of interesting lines that have enriched our use of the language. This phrase is used in Macbeth to illustrate how Macduff’s children are murdered swiftly and in a single 

action. Macduff lamented when they brought the news to him: All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O, hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop?


Some of our everyday lines and words are often derived from books by our favorite authors. 

Literature has a way of sticking around and entering everyday language without many knowing it. It will be fun to see in 50 years what words and phrases from today’s authors will be in everyday practice.

Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Greek authors, and others have mesmerized us with beautiful phrases and expressions we have been using to communicate our thoughts better without even knowing it.

The above 55 expressions are commonly used in our daily interactions. They were coined by these authors, who often utilize their display poetic license to create words from scratch or to use such words in an unconventional manner.

This is why reading is an essential strategy that will help improve our vocabulary.

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