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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Do Rap­pers Have a Big­ger Vocab­u­lary Than Shake­speare?: A Data Sci­en­tist Maps Out the Answer

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

What Shakespeare’s Eng­lish Sound­ed Like, and How We Know It

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

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Comments (4)
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  • cecilia says:

    hi ava!!!

  • Gill says:

    Very inter­est­ing indeed. Love the fact that Shake­speare is being com­pared to mod­ern-day rap­pers. Alas, the man indeed was a lyri­cal genius and would want to hear an album of his plays set to rap 🎶 music 🎼 or even reg­gae, reg­gae-ton, soca or any of the oth­er gen­res of our time!

  • Stephen Tetlow says:

    Myself and Hen­ry Ford have lit­tle in com­mon but we share the view that ‘His­to­ry is most­ly bunkem.’ In oth­er words, we don’t know because we weren’t there. We mythol­o­gise. I don’t believe Shake­speare invent­ed any­where near the num­ber of words attrib­uted to him, though he WAS the first to record them.
    I mean, he’s attrib­uted with invent­ing ‘can­dle hold­er’! Do you real­ly think the Tudors had no word for the thing they stood their can­dle in? “It’s get­ting dark,can you put a fresh can­dle in that…you know…that thing we haven’t got a word for.”

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