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The meaning and origin of the expression: Household words

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Household words

Meaning

Words or sayings that are in common use; names that are familiar to everyone.

Origin

Who coined the term 'household words'? The most common answer to any question beginning 'Who coined the phrase ...' is William Shakespeare and, as so often, the bard doesn't disappoint. This one comes from the celebrated Saint Crispin's Day speech in Henry V, 1598:

He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words

Shakespeare was in full creative flow at that date and also coined 'stiffen the sinews', 'like a greyhound in the slips' and 'once more unto the breach' all within the space of a few pages.

A 'hold' or 'holding' was the tenure or ownership of a domestic property. This persists in words like 'freehold' and 'smallholding'. 'Household' was the word for things held by a house, that is, the people and chattels that were normally at home. John Wyclif appears to have been the first person to have set down the word 'household' in print, in his 1382 translation of the Bible, in Ezekiel 28-13:

And take pertenaunce of houshold and substaunce.

Shakespeare seems to have enjoyed the word 'household' and used it no less than 23 times in his plays - often referring to 'household stuff', by which he meant the Tudor equivalents of bathroom fittings and white goods. Despite his efforts, 'household' didn't take off as a commonly used word and, apart from its use to refer to the Royal household, lay pretty much in the linguistic attic until it was dusted down by another literary giant - Charles Dickens.

Household wordsBy 1850, when the magazine Household Words was first published, Dickens was a very successful writer. He had been frustrated by earlier publishing enterprises, in which he thought interference by the publishers had stifled his creativity, and he decided to fund Household Words himself. This gave him free rein to indulge his view that the general public could and should be uplifted by his artistic musings on the stuff of everyday life - hence the title.

In the 16th century, the French landowner Michel de Montaigne retired to his chateau to write down and publish his thoughts and inadvertently invented the essay. In the 19th century, the wealthy author Dickens financed a journal to do much the same which also had the effect of bringing the magazine format to the general public. Now we have blogs. Easier and cheaper for us all to have a go, which is excellent - but I can't help feeling that standards have dropped rather.

See other phrases and sayings from Shakespeare.