The 1,700+ Words Invented by Shakespeare*

One of the favorite reference books on my shelves isn’t a style guide or dictionary but a collection of insults. And not just any collection of insults, but Shakespeare’s Insults for Teachers, an illustrated guide through the playwright’s barbs and put-downs, designed to offer comic relief to the beleaguered educator. (Books and websites about Shakespeare’s insults almost constitute a genre in themselves.) I refer to this slim, humorous hardback every time discussions of Shakespeare get too ponderous, to remind myself at a glance that what readers and audiences have always valued in his work is its lightning-fast wit and inventiveness.

While perusing any curated selection of Shakespeare’s insults, one can’t help but notice that, amidst the puns and bawdy references to body parts, so many of his wisecracks are about language itself—about certain characters’ lack of clarity or odd ways of speaking. From Much Ado About Nothing there’s the colorful, “His words are a very fantastical banquet, just so many strange dishes.” From The Merchant of Venice, the sarcastic, “Goodly Lord, what a wit-snapper you are!” From Troilus and Cressida, the derisive, “There’s a stewed phrase indeed!” And from Hamlet the subtle shade of “This is the very coinage of your brain.”




Indeed, it can often seem that Shakespeare—if we grant his historicity and authorship—is often writing self-deprecating notes about himself. “It is often said,” writes Fraser McAlpine at BBC America, that Shakespeare “invented a lot of what we currently call the English language…. Something like 1700 [words], all told,” which would mean that “out of every ten words," in his plays, "one will either have been new to his audience, new to his actors, or will have been passingly familiar, but never written down before.” It's no wonder so much of his dialogue seems to carry on a meta-commentary about the strangeness of its language.

We have enough trouble understanding Shakespeare today. The question McAlpine asks is how his contemporary audiences could understand him, given that so much of his diction was “the very coinage” of his brain. Lists of words first used by Shakespeare can be found aplently. There’s this catalog from the exhaustive multi-volume literary reference The Oxford English Dictionary, which lists such now-everyday words as “accessible,” “accommodation,” and “addiction” as making their first appearance in the plays. These “were not all invented by Shakespeare,” the list disclaims, “but the earliest citations for them in the OED” are from his work, meaning that the dictionary’s editors could find no earlier appearance in historical written sources in English.

Another shorter list links to an excerpt from Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke’s The Shakespeare Key, showing how the author, “with the right and might of a true poet… minted several words” that are now current, or “deserve” to be, such as the verb “articulate,” which we do use, and the noun “co-mart”—meaning “joint bargains”—which we could and maybe should. At ELLO, or English Language and Linguistics Online, we find a short tutorial on how Shakespeare formed new words, by borrowing them from other languages, or adapting them from other parts of speech, turning verbs into nouns, for example, or vice versa, and adding new endings to existing words.

“Whether you are ‘fashionable’ or ‘sanctimonious,’” writes National Geographic, “thank Shakespeare, who likely coined the terms.” He also apparently invented several phrases we now use in common speech, like “full circle,” “one fell swoop,” “strange bedfellows,” and “method in the madness.” (In another BBC America article, McAlpine lists 45 such phrases.) The online sources for Shakespeare’s original vocabulary are multitude, but we should note that many of them do not meet scholarly standards. As linguists and Shakespeare experts David and Ben Crystal write in Shakespeare’s Words, “we found very little that might be classed as ‘high-quality Shakespearean lexicography’” online.

So, there are reasons to be skeptical about claims that Shakespeare is responsible for the 1700 or more words for which he’s given sole credit. (Hence the asterisk in our title.) As noted, a great many of those words already existed in different forms, and many of them may have existed as non-literary colloquialisms before he raised their profile to the Elizabethan stage. Nonetheless, it is certainly the case that the Bard coined or first used hundreds of words, writes McAlpine, "with no obvious precedent to the listener, unless you were schooled in Latin or Greek.” The question, then, remains: “what on Earth did Shakespeare’s [mostly] uneducated audience make of this influx of newly-minted language into their entertainment?”

McAlpine brings those potentially stupefied Elizabethans into the present by comparing watching a Shakespeare play to watching “a three-hour long, open air rap battle. One in which you have no idea what any of the slang means.” A good deal would go over your head, “you’d maybe get the gist, but not the full impact,” but all the same, “it would all seem terribly important and dramatic.” (Costuming, props, and staging, of course, helped a lot, and still do.) The analogy works not only because of the amount of slang deployed in the plays, but also because of the intensity and regularity of the boasts and put-downs, which makes even more interesting one data scientist’s attempt to compare Shakespeare’s vocabulary with that of modern rappers, whose language is, just as often, the very coinage of their brains.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

When Ira Aldridge Became the First Black Actor to Perform Shakespeare in England (1824)

The ways that Othello, Aaron the Moor from Titus Andronicus, and Shylock from The Merchant of Venice—Shakespeare’s “explicitly racialized characters,” as George Washington University’s Ayanna Thompson puts it—have been interpreted over the centuries may have less to do with the author’s intentions and more with contemporary ideas about race, the actors cast in the roles, and the directorial choices made in a production. To a great degree, these characters have been played as though their identities were like the costumes put on by actors who darkened their faces or wore stereotypical markers of ethnic or religious Judaism (including “an obnoxiously large nose”).

Such portrayals risk turning complex characters into caricatures, validating much of what we might see as overt and implicit racism in the text. But there are those, Thompson says, who think such roles are actually “about racial impersonation.” Othello, for example, is “a role written by a white man, intended for a white actor in black makeup.”




For centuries, that is what most audiences fully expected to see. The tradition continued in Britain until the 19th century, when the Shakespearean color line, so to speak, was first crossed by Ira Aldridge, an American actor born in New York City in 1807.

"Educated at the African Free School,” notes the Folger Shakespeare Library, Aldridge "was able to see Shakespeare plays at the Park Theatre and the African Grove Theatre.” He took on roles like Romeo with the African Company, but “New York was generally not a welcoming place for black actors… some white theatergoers even attempted to prevent black companies from performing Shakespeare at all.” As Tony Howard, an English professor at the University of Warwick, tells PRI, “he was beaten up in the streets.” And so Aldridge left for England in 1824, where he played Othello at the Theatre Royal, Covent-Garden, at only 17 years old, the first black actor to play a Shakespearean role in Britain.

He later began performing under the name Keene, “a homonym,” notes the site Black History 365, “for the then popular British actor, Edmund Kean.” Aldridge’s big break came after he met Kean and his son Charles, also an actor, in 1831, and both became supporters of his career. When the elder Kean collapsed onstage in 1833, then died, Aldridge took over his role as Othello at London's Royalty Theatre in two performances. “Critics objected,” the Folger writes, “to his race, his youth, and his inexperience.” As Howard tells it, this characterization is a gross understatement:

There were those who said this is a very interesting and extraordinary young actor. And the fact that he's a black actor makes it more interesting and fascinating. But for many people, it was an insult because this is still a society where there is a great deal of slavery in the British Empire. And in order to combat the idea of increasing abolition, performers like Ira had to be stopped. And so there was a great deal of violent aggression. Not physical violence this time, but violence in the press.

Some of that verbal violence included comparing Aldridge to “performing horses” and “performing dogs.” Many London critics saw his entry on the Shakespearean stage as an affront to English literary tradition. Performing the bard’s works was “a kind of violation,” Howard summarizes, “he has no right to do that, not even to play Othello.”

Photo via the Folger Library

From his beginnings in Coventry to his experience in London, Aldridge made the once-blackface role his own, perhaps increasingly drawing “on his own experience and his own feeling.” He also portrayed Aaron in Titus, and as he persevered through negative press and prejudice, he took on other starring roles, including Richard III, Shylock, Iago, King Lear, and Macbeth. He “toured the English provinces extensively,” the BBC writes, “and stayed in Coventry for a few months, during which time he gave a number of speeches on the evils of slavery. When he left, people inspired by his speeches went to the county hall and petitioned for its abolition.”

By the end of the 1840s, however, Aldridge felt he had gone as far as he could go in England and left to tour the Continent in what had become his signature role, Othello. While first touring with an English company, he “later began to work with local theater troupes,” the Folger writes, “performing in English while the rest of the cast would perform in German, Swedish, etc. Despite the language barrier, Aldridge’s performances in Europe were highly acclaimed, a testament to his acting skills.” (See a playbill further up from a Bonn performance.) After winning great fame in Europe and Russia, the actor returned in triumph to London in 1855, and this time was very well-received.

Aldridge died in 1867. And though he was the subject of many portraits of the period—like that by James Northcote at the top of the post, portraying the 19-year-old Aldridge as Othello, and this 1830 painting by Henry Perronet Briggs—he was “largely forgotten by theater historians.” (See him above in an 1858 drawing by Ukranian artist Taras Shevchenko.) But his legacy has been revived in recent years. Aldridge was the subject of two recent plays, Black Othello, by Cecilia Sidenbladh, and Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. And last year, he was honored in Coventry by a plaque on the site of the theater where he first achieved fame.

While he succeeded in becoming an all-around great Shakespearean actor, Aldridge’s legacy rests especially in the way he helped transform roles performed as “racial impersonation” for a few hundred years into the provenance of talented black actors who bring new depth, complexity, and authenticity to characters often played as stock ethnic villains. While white actors like Orson Welles and Lawrence Olivier continued to play Othello well into the 20th century, these days such casting can be seen as "ridiculous," as Hugh Muir writes at The Guardian, especially if that actor "blacks up" for the role.

via the British Library

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear 55 Hours of Shakespeare’s Plays: The Tragedies, Comedies & Histories Performed by Vanessa Redgrave, Sir John Gielgud, Ralph Fiennes & Many More

The so-called “Great Vowel Shift” was a very unusual occurrence. During the period between around 1500 to around 1700, the English language “lost the purer vowel sounds of most European languages, as well as the phonetic pairing between long and short vowel sounds,” writes the site The History of English. Such radical linguistic change seems a "sudden and dramatic shift" historically, and “a peculiarly English phenomenon…. contemporary and neighboring languages like French, German and Spanish were entirely unaffected.” Over a period of around 200 years, in other words, English completely morphed from Chaucer’s melodic, nearly incomprehensible Middle English into the sounds we hear in Damian Lewis’s speech as Antony in Julius Caesar, above.

Shakespeare’s English sounded like neither of these, but somewhat like both. English became more distinctive precisely during the time it became more cosmopolitan, philosophical, and, eventually, global.




It was a period of “a large intake of loanwords from the Romance languages of Europe…, which required a different kind of pronunciation”—and of a great flood of Latinate words from scientific, legal, and medical discourse. “Latin loanwords in Old and Middle English are a mere trickle,” writes Charles Barber in The English Language, “but in Early Modern English,” Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English, “the trickle becomes a river, and by 1600 it is a deluge.”

The English Renaissance sits smack in the middle of the Great Vowel Shift, its literary productions reflecting a riotous and thrilling confluence of speech, a wild field of linguistic play and experimentation, novelty, ingenuity, and controversy. The scholars and writers of the time were themselves very aware of these changes. One “Elizabethan headmaster,” notes Barber, “commented in 1582 on the large number of foreign words being borrowed daily by the English language.” (Emphasis mine.)

Shakespeare’s language revels in such borrowing, and coining, of words, while often preserving the pronunciation and the syntax, of earlier forms of English from all over the UK. All other arguments for reading and listening to Shakespeare aside—and they are too numerous—the richness of the language may be the most robust for centuries to come. As long as there is something called English—though a thousand years hence, our version may sound as alien as the language of Beowulf does today—Shakespeare will still represent some of the wittiest, most adventurous expressions of the most fertile and creative moment in the language’s history.

Luckily for those future English speakers, writers, and appreciators, Shakespeare has also been the most widely adapted, recorded, and performed writer in the English language, and there will never be a shortage of his work in any format. Original Pronunciation Shakespeare has only recently left the academy and made it to regular performances on the stage, giving us a taste of just how different the verbal music of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet sounded to their first audiences. But what’s remarkable is how Shakespeare seems to work in any accent and any setting... almost.

As far as American actors go, Brando may have been more up to the task of playing Mark Antony than Charlton Heston was, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have both, and hundreds more besides. I would argue that there’s no such thing as too much Shakespeare in too many different voices. His plays needn’t be the greatest ever written to nonetheless contain some of the greatest speeches ever performed on any stage. That very much includes the speeches in lesser-known tragedies like Coriolanus, which an ensemble cast of Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Elan Eshkeri, and Gerard Butler turned into a 21st-century political barnburner of a movie.

The music and dialogue from that 2011 film adaptation open the playlist of Shakespeare’s tragedies, further up, which also includes a performance from Sir John Gielgud in Hamlet and a recorded performance of American composer Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra, a 1966 opera with a libretto by Franco Zeffirelli based exclusively on Shakespeare’s text. This work premiered as “one of the great operatic disasters of all time,” according to one critic who was in its first audience, “at one point the soprano Leontyne Price… found herself trapped inside a pyramid.” The idiosyncratic delivery in these various performances all stress the flexibility of Shakespeare’s language, which can still mesmerize, even under Spinal Tap-like conditions of performance anxiety.

After you’ve worked your way through 18 hours of Shakespeare’s tragedies, listen further up to 19 hours of Comedies, 13 hours of Histories, and, just above, to something we may not have enough of—5 hours of readings of Shakespeare’s poetry, by actors like Gielgud and Sir Anthony Quayle, Richard Burton, Emma Topping, and many more. Another great vowel shift may be coming, along with other world historical changes. These copious recordings preserve for the future the diverse sounds of Late Modern English, speaking the richest literary language of its Early Modern ancestor.

If you need Spotify's free software, download it here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Elton John Proves He Can Turn any Text into a Song: Watch Him Improvise with Lines from Henrik Ibsen’s Play, Peer Gynt

I'm not a lyric writer. I get all my inspiration from looking at the written page. - Elton John

Inspiration is one thing. Acting on it is another. Sir Elton’s output seems to go beyond his magical combination of talent, work ethic, and training. He claims to have taken all of 30 minutes to complete "Your Song." In his 2005 appearance on Inside the Actor's Studio, excerpted above, he passed his genius off as something akin to a party trick, calling on the audience to pass up a book—any book—as source material for an insta-song.

Given the number of student actors in the audience, it’s really not so surprising that the first volume to hit the stage was Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 verse play Peer Gynt.




Magicians heighten the drama by demanding absolute silence prior to a difficult trick.

John swings the other way. The resulting improvised tune is all the more impressive for his off the cuff, raunchy text-based patter. It's hard to imagine Ibsen playing so fast and loose with lines like:

Everything spites me with a vengeance

Sky and water and those wicked mountains

Fog pouring out of the sky to confound him

The water hurling in to drown him

The mountains pointing their rocks to fall-

And those people, all of them out for the kill!

Oh no, not to die!

I mustn’t lose him. The lout!

Why’s the devil have to tease him?

What might Metallica or Iron Maiden have conjured from such material? In John’s hands, it becomes a lush, emotionally charged ballad, the mountains and fog apt metaphors.

In his book Inside Inside, host James Lipton names this as one of “the two most astounding improvisations in the history of Inside the Actors Studio.” The other was Robin Williams making merry with a pink pashmina shawl.

In a 2012 interview with NPR, John went into the nature of his collaboration with his longtime word man, Bernie Taupin. Unlike other lyricists, Taupin does not think in terms of verse and chorus, leaving it to John to free the song from a wall of text:

It’s just a blank—well, not a blank, but it's a piece of paper. In the old days, it was handwritten. Then it got typed. Then it got faxed. Now it gets emailed. And it's no suggestions, nothing. And we've never written in the same room. I don't know if people know that. But he gives me the lyric, and I go away and write the song, and then come back and play it to him. And I've never lost the enjoyment or the thrill of playing him the song that I've just written to his lyric.

If you’d like to finish what John started by further musicalizing Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, the complete script can be read here. Or listen to the 1946 radio adaptation starring Ralph Richardson as Peer Gynt and Laurence Olivier as the Troll King and a button-moulder, below. Also above, you can watch John turn instructions for using an oven (yes, that daily appliance) into song.

via metafilter

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on March 20 for the second installment of Necromancers of the Public Domain at The Tank. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

An Innocent Christmas Typo Causes Sir Patrick Stewart to Star as Satan In This Animated Holiday Short

In certain sectors, over-the-top ad agency greetings are as much a part of the holiday season as A Christmas Carol and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!.

Anomaly London put in their thumb and pulled out a plum when Sir Patrick Stewart agreed to voice their latest effort, above.

And what better way to top his celebrated turn as Ebeneezer Scrooge than by tackling the most Christmas-y role of them all?




Santa, is that you?

No, dear child, ’tis Satan, summoned by an innocent mis-spelling on the part of a young girl eager for a Christmas puppy.

When the post office delivers her similarly misaddressed envelope to hell by December 25, the buff and tattooed Lord of Darkness’ heart grows three sizes. Everyone likes to be told they’re special.

Next thing you know, he’s traded the fiery furnace for a gluten-free bakery in Shoreditch, where he’s a happy team player, making latte art and wearing a goofy cap.

The ending is a sweet mix of “I hate you, you ruined Christmas, go to hell!” and “God bless us everyone.” Santa doesn’t survive, but the childlike capacity for wonder does.

Those with sensitive stomachs may want to go easy on the eggnog while watching this soon-to-be-holiday classic. The projectile vomiting rivals the Exorcist’s.

And happy holidays from all of us at Open Culture!

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hamilton Mania Inspires the Library of Congress to Put 12,000 Alexander Hamilton Documents Online

Remember when bloody, bloody Andrew Jackson seemed like a shoe in for Best Sepulchral Historical Figure Brought Back to Life by an American Musical?

Alas for the 7th President, a little juggernaut called Hamilton came along, and just like that, it was the first Treasury Secretary and author of the Federalist Papers who had a fan base on the order of Beatlemania.

Teachers, historians, and librarians thrilled to reports of kids singing along with the Hamilton soundtrack. Playwright and original star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s clever rap lyrics ensured that young Hamilfans (and their parents, who reportedly were never allowed to listen to anything else in the car) would become well versed in their favorite founding father’s personal and professional history.




Out of town visitors who spend upwards of a month’s grocery budget for Broadway tickets voluntarily side trip way uptown to tour Hamilton Grange. The insatiable selfie imperative drives them to Central Park and Museum of the City of New York in search of larger than life sculptures. They take the PATH train to Weehawken to pay their respects in the spot where Hamilton was felled by Aaron Burr

Hamilton merchandise, needless to say, is selling briskly. Books, t-shirts, jewelry, bobble heads commemorative mugs…

The Library of Congress is not out to cash in on this cultural moment in the monetary sense. But "given the increased interest in Hamilton," says Julie Miller, a curator of early American manuscripts, it's no accident that the Library has taken pains to digitize 12,000 Hamilton documents and make them available on the web. The collection includes speeches, a draft of the Reynolds Pamphlet, financial accounts, school exercises and correspondence, both personal and public, encompassing such marquee names as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Lafayette, and George Washington.

One need not be a musical theater fan to appreciate the emotion of the letter he wrote to his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on the eve of his fateful duel with Aaron Burr:

I need not tell you of the pangs I feel, from the idea of quitting you and exposing you to the anguish which I know you would feel. . . . Adieu best of wives and best of Women. Embrace all my darling Children for me.

Explore the Library of Congress’ Hamilton collection here.

And enter the online lottery for $10 Hamilton tickets because, hey, somebody’s got to win.

via Theater Mania

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Brooklyn Academy of Music Puts Online 70,000 Objects Documenting the History of the Performing Arts: Download Playbills, Posters & More

Yesterday the sad news broke that The Village Voice will discontinue its print edition. Co-founded by Norman Mailer in 1955 and providing New Yorkers with savvy music writing, raunchy advice columns, juicy exposés, reviews, entertainment listings, apartments, jobs, band members, terrible roommates, and pretty much anything else one might desire every week for over half a century, the paper will be missed. Though it won’t disappear online, the loss of the street-level copy in its comfortingly familiar red plastic box marks the abrupt end of an era. Those of us inclined to mourn its passing can take some solace in the fact that so many of the city’s key cultural institutions still persist.

Prominent among them, Brooklyn’s Academy of Music, or BAM, has been at it since 1861, when it began as the home of the Philharmonic Society of Brooklyn. It has inhabited its present Beaux Arts building in Fort Greene since 1908. In its 150 years as a performance space for opera, classical, avant-garde theater, dance, and music, and film, BAM has amassed quite a collection of memorabilia. This year, on its century-and-a-half anniversary, it has made 70,000 of those artifacts available to the public in its Leon Levy Digital Archive. Like future issues of the Voice, you cannot hold these in your hand, unless you happen to be one of the museum’s curators. But “researchers—or anyone else interested,” writes The New York Times, “can create personalized collections based on specific artists, companies or eras.”

The history represented here is vast and deep, by a young country’s standards. “Every presidential candidate made campaign stops there before there was television,” says former BAM president Karen Brooks Hopkins. “Mary Todd Lincoln was in the audience during the opening week of festivities. Then you have [Rudolph] Nuryev making his first performance in the West just after he defects, [Martha] Graham performing her last performance on stage….” These landmark moments notwithstanding, BAM has earned a reputation as a home for avant-garde performance art, and the collection certainly reflects that dimension among the 40,000 artists represented.

We have further up the postcard Keith Haring designed for a 1984 Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane piece called Secret Pastures (Haring also designed the sets). We have the poster above for a 1981 performance of Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, his opera based on the life of Gandhi. And below, a poster for the 1983 world premier of Laurie Anderson’s United States: Parts I-IV. These objects come from BAM’s Next Wave Festival collection, which contains many thousands of photographs, playbills, and posters from the space’s more experimental side, many, though not all of them, downloadable.

Between the Civil War memorabilia and modernist documents, you’ll find all sorts of fascinating ephemera: photos of a very young Meryl Streep and Christopher Lloyd in a 1977 production of Happy End at the Chelsea Theater during a BAM Spring Series, or of an older Patrick Stewart in a 2008 Macbeth. Just below, we have a charming playing card featuring the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Peter Jay Sharp building in 1909, the year after it was built. It’s an imposing structure that seems like it might last forever, though much of the vibrant creative work featured year after year at BAM may someday also move entirely into digital spaces. Enter the complete BAM digital archive here.

via The New York Times/Hyperallergic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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