Shakespeare's Genius for Creating Words
Created | Updated Jul 12, 2011
William Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest playwright who ever lived. He wrote 38 plays and more than 150 poems, most of which are familiar to people across the world. But while Shakespeare's talents as a dramatist and poet are universally acknowledged, what is perhaps less well known is his contribution to the English language as we know it today, through the creation or recording of large numbers of previously unrecorded words.
Shakespeare the Neologist
A neologism is itself a newly invented word meaning the creation of new words or the introduction of new senses for old ones. The full version of the Oxford English Dictionary lists around 2,200 words for which the earliest citation is in the works of Shakespeare. The linguist David Crystal claims about 1,700 of these can plausibly be claimed to have been invented by the Bard. According to Crystal, about half of that number are still in the language today and so would be easily understood by anyone watching his plays being performed today by modern companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Of the 17,677 words1 in his collected writings, around 10% are first recorded by Shakespeare and thus can be argued to have been coined by him. These include words such as:
Not all of Shakespeare's neologisms caught the popular imagination and entered usage. Take, for example, 'anthropophaginian', which he used to mean 'cannibal'. The fact that any did, however, is a testament to his popularity and genius as a writer.
It must also be remembered that just because a word is first recorded in one of Shakespeare's writings does not necessarily mean that he invented it. The word could have been in popular usage already, whether as a common word or a dialect word2 but not previously recorded in writing. Alternatively, it could have been written in documents which have either not survived to the present day or which have not yet been studied by scholars. That said, the sheer number of words which are first recorded in Shakespeare means that surely he must have coined a great many of them.
Changing Existing Words
As well as inventing wholly new words, Shakespeare also had something of a disregard for the usual rules of written English, which enabled him to play fast and loose (a phrase often attributed – wrongly – to Shakespeare) with grammar. He used the un- prefix to create a number of new words such as unlock, unveil and unhand as well as more than 300 others. He also combined existing words to make new compound words3, such as blood-stained and bare-faced.
Furthermore, he sometimes took existing nouns and made them verbs and vice-versa. A good example of this is the word 'shudder'. Before Shakespeare, it is only recorded as a verb4, but in Timon of Athens he used it as a noun5. There are 200 similar examples in his works. He also used words that were already known, but added a new meaning. For example, the word 'angel' in its religious sense dates back to Anglo-Saxon but in the sense of a lovely person it makes its first recorded appearance in the pages of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare is responsible for making far more new senses for existing words than he is for inventing words outright.
A Little Context
Shakespeare was writing in what linguists refer to as Early Modern English. It was a period of great change in the English language as English developed from Middle English - the language of Chaucer, which would be nearly as impenetrable to people of Shakespeare's time as it is to us - to something considerably more recognisable to modern people.
As might be expected from this, Shakespeare is not the only man among his contemporaries to be credited with creating new words. Others include: defunct, strenuous and clumsy (Ben Jonson); explain, acceptance and exaggerate (Sir Thomas More) as well as modesty and animate (Sir Thomas Elyot).
A Turn Of Phrase
In addition to the number of words Shakespeare invented, he is also responsible for a large number of phrases which are still in common usage today. Some of these, such as 'Once more unto the breach, dear friends'6 may be recognised as of Shakespearean origin, but most people would be surprised which everyday phrases flowed from the Bard's quill. Are you waiting with bated breath7 to hear them? Oh, all right then:
- the milk of human kindness (Macbeth)
- vanish into thin air (Othello)
- cold comfort (The Taming of the Shrew)
- in a pickle (The Tempest)
- flesh and blood (Hamlet)
- foregone conclusion (Othello)
- in my mind's eye (Hamlet)
- a laughing stock (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
- one fell swoop (Macbeth)
- lie low (Much Ado About Nothing)
- a sorry sight (Macbeth)
- be cruel to be kind (Hamlet)
For a longer list, see this Newsround page.
According to Bill Bryson in his Shakespeare biography, about one tenth of the quotes contained in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations come from Shakespeare, an astonishing proportion.
A Final Word
English is a constantly evolving language, and most of us would be beyond delighted to have contributed even one word or phrase to it. Shakespeare added hundreds, and that is the sign of an unmatched genius. It really does beggar all description.