"Mortal coil" is a poetic term for the troubles of daily life and the strife and suffering of the world. It is used in the sense of a burden to be carried or abandoned. To "shuffle off this mortal coil" is to die, exemplified in the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy in Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Derived from 16th-century English, "coil" refers to tumults or troubles. Used idiomatically, the phrase means "the bustle and turmoil of this mortal life". "Coil" has an unusual etymological history. It was coined repeatedly; at various times people have used it as a verb to mean "to cull", "to thrash", "to lie in rings or spirals", "to turn", "to mound hay" and "to stir". As a noun it has meant "a selection", "a spiral", "the breech of a gun", "a mound of hay", "a pen for hens", and "noisy disturbance, fuss, ado". It is in this last sense, which became popular in the 16th century, that Shakespeare used the word.
Arthur Schopenhauer, in his Parerga and Paralipomena which was written in German, Volume 2, § 232a, conjectured that this phrase might have been involved in a typesetter's error or a slip of the author's pen.
Should there not have been originally 'shuttled off'? This verb itself no longer exists but 'shuttle' is an implement used in weaving. Accordingly, the meaning might be: 'when we have unwound and worked off this coil of mortality.'
In this way, the length of our life is metaphorically the length of thread that is coiled on a spool, a metaphor related to the ancient Greek mythological figures of the Fates. As humans live, the thread is unwound from the coil by the shuttle of the loom of time.
- Oxford English Dictionary 1979 edition
- Parerga and Paralipomena: Short Philosophical Essays, Arthur Schopenhauer, Volume Two, Clarendon Press, Oxford, Oxford University Press, First Published 1974, Reissued 2000
- "Shuffle off this mortal coil – meaning and origin". Phrases.org.uk. Retrieved 2015-05-28.
- "Shakespeare Resource Center – Line Analysis: Hamlet". Bardweb.net. Retrieved 2015-05-28.