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12 Things You Say Without Realizing You’re Quoting Poetry

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Last year, we collected 21 idioms and expressions that have entered everyday language from Shakespeare’s works, from the original “wild goose chase” in Romeo and Juliet to Macbeth’s “be-all and end-all.” But the connection between everyday idioms and literature doesn’t end there—if you’ve ever talked about “the birds and the bees” or referenced “the best laid plans of mice and men,” then you’ve inadvertently quoted some of the English language’s most famous poets.

1. NO MAN IS AN ISLAND

Used as a proverbial reminder that no one is entirely independent and that everyone relies in some way on other people, the phrase no man is an island comes from “Meditation XVII,” part of the metaphysical poet John Donne’s prose-poem Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

Donne wrote his Devotions, a series of 23 essays on life, death, health, and sickness while recovering from a near-fatal illness in the early 1620s and published them in 1624. The seventeenth of his devotions also includes another famous line …

2. FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS (IT TOLLS FOR THEE)

Continue reading "Meditation XVII," and you’ll get to this line, which Ernest Hemingway took as the title of his 1940 novel:

… Any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

3. AN ALBATROSS AROUND YOUR NECK

Dismissing something as an albatross around your neck implies that it is an annoying or burdensome problem or curse. The expression comes from the famous scene in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," in which the eponymous seafarer shoots and kills an albatross—a sign of good luck or providence in naval folklore—after which his ship and its crew suffer a terrible series of mishaps:

Ah! well a-day! What evil looks
Had I from old and young!
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

4. THE BIRDS AND THE BEES

The origins of this phrase are obscure, but it’s generally believed to have been heavily inspired by Coleridge, who wrote in his 1825 poem "Work Without Hope":

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—
The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—
And Winter slumbering in the open air,
Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!

5. TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION

Lord Byron is credited both with popularizing the phrase carpe diem in English (a line he stole from the Roman lyric poet Horace), and with the earliest use of Napoleon’s 1815 defeat at Waterloo as a metaphor for any similarly substantial loss or setback. But in the fourteenth canto of his epic poem Don Juan (c. 1823), Byron also gave us the proverb that “truth is stranger than fiction”:

’Tis strange—but true; for truth is always strange;
Stranger than fiction; if it could be told,
How much would novels gain by the exchange!

6. A THING OF BEAUTY IS A JOY FOREVER

The proverb a thing of beauty is a joy forever is actually the first line of John Keats’s poem "Endymion" (1818):

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Referring to autumn as “the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” is also direct quote from Keats, and comes from the opening line of his 1820 ode "To Autumn."

7. RED IN TOOTH AND CLAW

If something is “red in tooth and claw,” then it’s savagely or mercilessly brutal. The phrase has been used allusively to describe intensely competitive or clashing situations ever since Alfred, Lord Tennyson included the line in his 1850 poem, "In Memoriam A.H.H.":

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law—
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—
Who loved, who suffer’d countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal’d within the iron hills?

8. ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE

According to Dante’s "Inferno," the words “abandon hope all ye who enter here” comprise the last of nine lines inscribed above the entrance to Hell. The phrase has existed in a number of different guises and wordings over the years, ever since parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy were first translated into English from the original 14th century Italian in the late 1700s; back then, this famous line was rendered as a less memorable, “Ye who here enter to return despair.” But in 1814, the renowned English translator Henry Francis Cary finally gave us the template for the version we know today:

Through me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric mov’d:
To rear me was the task of power divine,
Supremest wisdom, and primeval love.
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

9. TRIP THE LIGHT FANTASTIC

The idiom trip the light fantastic is based on a line from John Milton’s 1645 poem, "L’Allegro":

Come, and trip it, as you go,
On the light fantastic toe;
And in thy right hand lead with thee
The mountain-nymph, sweet Liberty;

The “trip” of trip the light fantastic doesn’t mean “stumble,” but rather “dance” or “move nimbly,” which was the word’s original meaning when it first appeared in English in the 14th century. The “light fantastic,” however, is entirely Milton’s invention and is meant to allude to the fantastical movements and gyrations made by divinely inspired dancers—he used it eight years earlier in "Comus" (1637), a verse “masque” that is also responsible (albeit in a fairly roundabout way) for the saying that “every cloud has a silver lining.”

10. NEVER THE TWAIN (SHALL MEET)

Commenting that never the twain shall meet implies that two things are polar opposites—so different, and so mutually opposed, that they will never reconcile or come together. The phrase is a direct quotation from the opening line of Rudyard Kipling’s "Ballad of East and West" (1889):

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,
Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat;
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!

11. LESS IS MORE

It might sound like an old adage, but the widespread use of the phrase less is more is credited to the poet Robert Browning, who used it in his poem "Andrea del Sarto" (published 1855):

Who strive—you don’t know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat,—
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says,
(I know his name, no matter)—so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia.

12. THE BEST LAID PLANS OF MICE AND MEN

As well as giving John Steinbeck the title for his 1937 novella, the Scots poet Robert Burns gave us the phrase the best laid plans—or, in his original line, schemes—of mice and men in his 1785 poem, "To A Mouse":

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane [not alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley, [Often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

The phrase has been used ever since as a proverbial reminder that things don’t often go to plan.

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Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
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In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Using Words Like 'Really' A Lot Could Mean You're Really Stressed
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Are you feeling really exhausted? Or have you noticed that it's incredibly hot out today?

If you recognize the adverbs above as appearing frequently in your own speech, it could be a sign that you're stressed. At least, those are the findings in a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Nature reports, researchers found that peppering our speech with "function words" is a pretty accurate indicator of our anxiety levels.

Function words differ from verbs and nouns in that they don't mean much on their own and mostly serve to clarify the words around them. Included in this group are pronouns, adverbs, and adjectives. A team of American researchers suspected that people use these words more frequently when they're stressed, so to test their hypothesis, they hooked up recording devices to 143 volunteers.

After transcribing and analyzing audio clips recorded periodically over the course of two days, the researchers compared subjects' speech patterns to the gene expressions of certain white blood cells in their bodies that are susceptible to stress. They found that people exhibiting the biological symptoms of stress talked less overall, but when they did speak up they were more likely to use words like really and incredibly.

They also preferred the pronouns me and mine over them and their, possibly indicating their self-absorbed world view when under pressure. The appearance of these trends predicted stress in the volunteers' genes more accurately than their own self-assessments. As study co-author Matthias Mehl told Nature, this could be a reason for doctors to "listen beyond the content" of the symptoms their patients report and pay greater attention "to the way it is expressed" in the future.

One reason function words are such a great indicator of stress is that we often insert them into our sentences unconsciously, while our choice of words like nouns and verbs is more deliberate. Anxiety isn't the only thing that influences our speech without us realizing it. Hearing ideas we agree with also has a way of shaping our syntax.

[h/t Nature]

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