Taking an Interest in Idioms

03 June 2016

It is widely acknowledged that many of our favourite everyday phrases were coined by Shakespeare: "Vanish into thin air" – Othello, "For goodness sake" - Henry VIII, “A wild goose chase" - Romeo and Juliet and "All's well that ends well" from (of course) All’s Well That Ends Well. It cannot always be determined whether these phrases were already in existence or if they were invented by the Bard himself but they are certainly the first recorded instances.

Idioms are integral to making a language interesting and vibrant and, as proved by Shakespeare, good ones stick around for generations.

Eighteenth Century Drama, our latest resource, features the John Larpent Collection from the Huntington Library – an archive of almost every play submitted for licence between 1737 and 1824. From within this unique collection, I have selected two plays reported to be the origin of a couple of the most well used idioms in the English language.

The Lyceum Theatre © The Garrick Club

The Foundling was a five act comedy written by Edward Moore in 1748 and is said to contain the first instance of the phrase “to add insult to injury”. In the prologue, the author warns that the piece "gives you more of moral than of sport". He may have been inspired to use the phrase by Aesop’s moral tale in which a bald man hits himself on the head whilst trying to swat a fly that has just bitten him. The phrase comes in the very last scene of the piece, when an argument between the characters, which has already escalated to a threat of a law suit, leads to swords being drawn, the character Sir Charles exclaims “Hold Sir!- This is adding insult to injuries!”

The Foundling, 22 Jan 1748, © The Huntington Library

According to popular thought, The Broken Sword, a Melodrama written by William Diamond is the origin of the idiom "that old chestnut" meaning an old, stale joke or story. Upon hearing his captain start upon a tale. “I entered the woods of Colloway, when suddenly from the thick boughs of a cork tree” — Pablo interrupts him with the words, “A chestnut, captain; a chestnut.” “Bah!” says the captain. “Booby. I say a cork tree.” “A chestnut,” reiterates Pablo. “I should know as well as you, having heard you tell the tale 27 times.” It is speculated that the popularity of the term in America can be attributed to the plays popularity there, after its success at British theatres.

From image 17 of The Broken Sword, Sep. 30, 1816, © The Huntington Library

Both of these phrases are uttered at comedic high point of their respective pieces, which is perhaps what made them so memorable to their audience. The theatre in the 18th-19th Century was a place of huge cultural significance, attended by many ranks of society, and staging some of the eras biggest celebrities, whether the utterance of these phrases by actors on the London Stage were their very first forms, or not, they will have certainly have contributed to their popularity and longevity. 


Enjoy The Foundling and The Broken Sword now. 

Eighteenth Century Drama was published in May 2016. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

About the Author

Rosie Perry

Rosie Perry

Since joining Adam Matthew in April 2014 I have worked on a variety of projects including Mass Observation Online and American History 1493-1945. Previous to this I completed a degree in Art History and particularly enjoy exploring and discovering the rich visual content of our resources.

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