The game is afoot – Meaning and Origin

William Shakespeare has had a significant impact on our language. And many of the terms he invented are still used today.

Today, I’m going to be talking about a phrase of his that many don’t realise was created by him.

The phrase “The game is afoot” first came about in Shakespeare’s play “Henry IV”. It means the process is underway.

Trust me, this lesson is going to be nothing like what your English teacher taught you about.

In this article, we’ll be looking at the impact of Shakespeare on modern English, why we should say “the game is afoot”, and when we might use it.

Henry IV and “The game is afoot”

The full quote is “Before the game is afoot, thou still let’st slip”. That’s Shakespeare talk for “before we even began, you let it slip”.

Henry IV was an ancestor to Elizabeth I, the queen at the time of William Shakespeare. This was a man who the queen would have highly admired, so Shakespeare needed to portray him in a positive light.

If he had written a play that had insulted anyone related to Elizabeth I, it’s likely his head wouldn’t have stayed attached to his body for very long. Apart from Richard III who she hated.

Importance of Shakespeare

English Teachers have this habit of always droning on and on about Shakespeare, but never actually explaining why he matters so much. Yes, Shakespeare was a great writer, but he was also so much more than that.

The Bard changed the way we use language, phrases such as “It’s Greek to me” and “You gotta be cruel to be kind” were all created by him.

Before Shakespeare, the theatre was only for the very richest in society, but Will wanted to bring it to everyday working-class people, his plays had a habit of being able to capture both the upper and the working classes.

But he also created plays about topics that others wouldn’t dare. Nobody else would have had the balls to talk about royalty like he did, witches too.


Shakespeare may be loved by your English teacher, but one person who may not have looked at him so kindly would have been your history teacher.

Shakespeare had a habit of twisting the truth a little bit, mainly in favour of Queen Elizabeth I. The best example of Hitler telling porkies is “Richard III”.

In this play, Richard was portrayed as a pure villain, but in reality, he wasn’t so bad. And most of the stuff Shakespeare said he did wasn’t right.

Henry IV isn’t his most historically inaccurate play. However, he did cherry-pick the best parts of him, and the ages of some of the characters were changed.

Afoot isn’t too popular

The word “afoot” is not one that people tend to use anymore. You have to remember, Shakespeare was around thousands of years ago. And during that time, the words we used have changed.

Outside of this quote, very few people will use “afoot” as part of their everyday language. Usually, we would just say “it’s started”.

Afoot Etymology

As you may already be able to tell, “afoot” comes from “on foot”.

During the Tudor era, battles would have been far more common than they are today. What the knights would often do is ride their horses to the battle site, and then get off their horses and finish the battle on foot.

So to say that you were “afoot” would have been to say that you’ve gotten off your horse, and you’re now doing the battle that is taking place on foot.

But Shakespeare was not talking about a knight, he was talking about a game(event). This is an excellent example of metaphorical language.

Game Etymology

Although “game” can be associated with a type of meat (meat that you need to go out to hunt for), in this context a “game” is something you play.

“Game” comes from Old English “Gamen”, meaning Joy.

“Gamen” comes from the Proto-Germanic “Gamann”. This word is made of two parts, “Ga” meaning collective and “mann” meaning person.

“Gamann” was a collection of people, something that tends to bring out joy, and usually the ideal place to play a game.

So next time you play a game, you’ll know where the word comes from.

Why you should say “the game is afoot”

I don’t want you to just know about the phrase “the game is afoot”, I want you to use it in your everyday talking.

Firstly, and I hate to sound like a 12-year-old here, but it just sounds cool. It makes it sound like you’re a knight about to go into battle.

This can make you sound severe and respectable even when talking casually.

But it also shows that you have a good knowledge of words. You don’t just know the words that everybody else knows, but you have a firmer grasp of the English language than most other people do.


These days, when you hear the term “the game is afoot”, there’s a pretty high chance it’s being used to describe a sporting match which has already started.

In a way, sports are kind of like a battle. Two teams are fighting over the same prize, and there is probably going to be a winner and a loser.

Although Sports are undoubtedly games, the term “game” was not used by Shakespeare in this sense, it was used to talk about a battle where people were going to get killed. But still, it sounds cooler than “the match has begun”.

Conclusion to “The game is afoot”

“The game is afoot” is from the Shakespeare play “Henry IV”, and it just means “it’s started”. Shakespeare has had a massive impact on the English language and how we talk to one another. He was also a great pioneer of his time, writing plays about taboo topics and bringing them to working-class people.

Even if his plays aren’t always entirely historically accurate, there’s no denying that they are incredible.

When he spoke about “the game” he didn’t mean the football, he was talking about a battle where people were going to get very badly hurt.