Shakespeare’s Word Play

Depending on who you believe, the English language owes a debt of gratitude to Shakespeare for the invention of anywhere between 400 and 2500 words and phrases that we still use today.

It makes sense. Shakespeare was changing the way humans tell stories. Some people even believe he was changing what it meant to be a human being, so it stands to reason that he would need some interesting new words to help him do that. On closer inspection, it may be that Shakespeare’s greatest skill wasn’t inventing words but rather for listening to how language was changing around him, and a knack for lots of language manipulation that human beings are still practising today.

Generations of school students have been told that one of the reasons we still study Shakespeare is that he invented so many new words. But it seems counter intuitive for a playwright to be inventing new words at such an incredible rate. 1500 brand new words in a career of about 20 years? How on earth would his audience understand what he was saying?

It seems much more likely that Shakespeare’s real skill was as a student of words and their changing usage and that rather than being the source of so many new words Shakespeare’s plays were simply the first time they were immortalised in print. In fact a study conducted in 2003 found that a key driver for language changes around the time Shakespeare was writing was not playwrights inventing new words but rather the way young people used language in the letters they sent each other -specifically young women. Something parents the world over can understand even today when they are bamboozled by how their children are communicating with each other.

Of course Shakespeare was indulging in some invention of his own.

Shakespeare was a great combiner of words, often putting two existing words together to give a sense of something else. Blood-stained is a great example. The words “blood” and “stained” were certainly not inventions of Shakespeare’s but the first time they appeared in combination was — appropriately — in Titus Andronicus. And of course, combining words is something we still do today — think “podcast” or “frenemy”.

We are also still verbing. Shakespeare loved taking a word that has traditionally been used as a noun and turning it into a verb. Some scholars of the English language seem to take great exception to what they see as a modern-day affliction. They simply won’t accept that “message” is no longer just something you can send or receive but it is also something you do. But if you hate verbing then you’re hating Shakespeare. Numerous Shakespearean characters are referred to as having been “cowarded” and in one particularly powerful rant Juliet’s father demands that his daughter “thank me no thankings and proud me no prouds.” On close analysis this sentence is almost nonsensical but when we hear it out loud in response to Juliet’s pleas, Lord Capulet’s sense is abundantly clear.

No doubt Shakespeare was a master manipulator of language. In so many of his plays that is exactly what he was trying to draw our attention to; how powerful language is, and how it is so often used to manipulate and influence people. But it is important to remember that language belongs to all of us as humans and that we are in control of how it grows and changes.

This Christmas, we have selected 30 of our favourite Shakespearean words for adoption. You can find a short definition of each below and upon adoption, we will issue a tax-deductible receipt that shares more about the context in which Shakespeare used his newly-minted word.

ADMIRABLE adjective; wondrous, marvellous, extraordinary

AMAZEMENT noun; consternation, bewilderment

ARCH-VILLIAN noun; a principal or extreme villain

BUZZER noun; one that buzzes

CHEAP adverb; for little cost

CLANGOUR noun; clanging, ringing, reverberation

EXCITEMENT noun; something that excites or rouses

EXPOSURE noun; the fact or condition of being exposed

FULLHEARTED adjective; full of courage; totally confident

GLOW verb; blush, redden, flush

GOSSIP verb; to relate gossip; to talk together

IMPARTIAL adjective; indifferent, disinterested, detached

KICKY-WICKY noun; housewife

LADYBIRD noun; a small brightly coloured, often spotted beetle

MONUMENTAL adjective; kept as a memento, serving as a token, providing a memorial

NIMBLE-FOOTED adjective; able to move the feet agilely and neatly

PEDANTICAL adjective; pedantic, exaggerated, artificial

PRICELESS adjective; having a value beyond any price

RADIANCE noun; the quality or state of being radient

RECLUSIVE adjective; secluded, cloistered, withdrawn from society

RETIREMENT noun; something to fall back on

SANCTIMONIOUS adjective; holy, sacred, consecrated

SHOOTING STAR noun; meteor, shooting star

SKIMBLE-SKAMBLE adjective; rambling and confused, senseless

SLUGABED noun; one who lies late in bed; a sluggard

STEALTHY adjective; slow, deliberate, and secret in action or character.

TRANQUIL adjective; free from agitation of mind or spirit

VARLETRY noun; mob, menials, ruffians

YELPING verb; to utter a sharp quick shrill cry

ZANY noun; stooge, clown’s assistant, mimic

ADOPT YOUR WORD TODAY.


Written by Huw McKinnon.

Huw is Bell Shakespeare’s Resident Artist in Education. He has been a Bell Shakespeare Teaching Artist for more than 10 years, and in 2019 he co-directed the Company’s schools’ production of Macbeth.