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Seven business terms we owe to Shakespeare

As translators, we spend a lot of time ensuring our clients’ messages are relevant to their context. This includes checking that the turns of phrase and expressions we use are relevant in current usage and not dated. Properly localised video media, for example, would use contemporary and area-specific slang and turns of phrase. But sometimes what we consider “modern” language has much older roots…

It’s been 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, but still his works continue to give us uniquely vivid ways in which to express hope and despair, sorrow and rage, love and lust.

Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary credits over 1,500 words to the Bard. If you’ve ever been ‘in a pickle’, waited ‘with bated breath’, or gone on ‘a wild goose chase’, you’re echoing The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice and Romeo and Juliet respectively. Even if you’ve never so much as watched a movie adaptation—you’re likely to have quoted him unwittingly.

Here are seven words Shakespeare gave the business word.


These days, employment refers to the utilisation of resources or the state of having a paid job. But until the 1580s, the French-derived term referred simply to the spending of money. Here’s a character in Shakespeare’s play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, making a pitch for friends in need of a decent job:

“These banish’d men that I have kept withal

Are men endued with worthy qualities:

Forgive them what they have committed here

And let them be recall’d from their exile:

They are reformed, civil, full of good

And fit for great employment, worthy lord.”


Businesses rely on managers to get things done, but around c.1560, the first usage of the term referred explicitly to the handling or controlling of a horse. The specific sense of ‘one who conducts a house of business or public institution’ didn’t enter into common use until 1705.

Always ahead of his time, you can find the modern meaning in two of his plays: Love’s Labour’s Lost and, in the example below, Midsummer’s Night Dream:

“Come now; what masques, what dances shall we have,

To wear away this long age of three hours

Between our after-supper and bed-time?

Where is our usual manager of mirth?

What revels are in hand? Is there no play,

To ease the anguish of a torturing hour?”


Nearly everything we do in business is about making our product or service marketable, or fit for market.

Shakespeare pioneered the adjective form in c.1600 when he put his female heroines on the metaphorical marriage market in As You Like It:

“Celia. By my troth, thou sayest true; for since the little wit that

fools have was silenced, the little foolery that wise men have

makes a great show. Here comes Monsieur Le Beau.


Rosalind. With his mouth full of news.

Celia. Which he will put on us as pigeons feed their young.

Rosalind. Then shall we be news-cramm’d.

Celia. All the better; we shall be the more marketable.”


How could businesses get off the ground   without investment? The commercial sense of investing in money or capital came about in reference to the East India Company in the 1610s, but originally referred to the robes a person was clothed in.

In both Henry IV and Hamlet “investments” refers to the way someone is dressed, but it’s used metaphorically when Polonius warns his daughter Ophelia of the “unholy” activities in which the prince is involved:

“In few, Ophelia,

Do not believe his vows; for they are brokers,

Not of that dye which their investments show,

But mere implorators of unholy suits,

Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds,

The better to beguile.”


Prices, delivery times, compensation—in business, we negotiate everything. But the sense expansion from simply ‘doing business’ to also include ‘bargaining’ only entered the dictionary in 1862.

In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare uses the word “negotiate” to mean ‘make a decision’:

“Friendship is constant in all other things

Save in the office and affairs of love:

Therefore, all hearts in love use their own tongues;

Let every eye negotiate for itself

And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch

Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.”


If you’re in the business of putting a price on something, it’s important to ensure your service is not undervalued. It’s possible Shakespeare made first use of the term which appeared in the 1590s to mean ‘rate as inferior’, and the monetary aspect became common in the 1620s.

In The Merchant of Venice, a play consumed by the equation of bodies as currency, Shakespeare conflates these meanings of the word to describe a woman’s beauty:

“In Belmont is a lady richly left;

And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,

Of wondrous virtues: sometimes from her eyes

I did receive fair speechless messages:

Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued.”


To get ahead in business, you need to outsell your competition. In early uses, the compound term simply meant ‘to sell’, without the implied competitive element.

It’s unlikely Shakespeare had business metrics in mind, but he did use the word “outsell” to mean the exceeding beauty-value of a woman in his play, Cymbeline:

“I love and hate her: for she’s fair and royal,

And that she hath all courtly parts more exquisite

Than lady, ladies, woman; from every one

The best she hath, and she, of all compounded,

Outsells them all; I love her therefore”

Feeling inspired? Here are 10 Shakespeare quotes every entrepreneur should read.

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