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. However on closer inspection, it may be that Shakespeare’s greatest skill wasn’t inventing words but rather listening to how language was changing around him, and a knack for language manipulation that humans 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 counterintuitive for a playwright to be inventing new words at such an incredible rate. 1,500 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. 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 don't like verbing, then you’re against one of Shakespeare’s common devices. Numerous characters in Shakespeare’s plays 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” (Lord Capulet, Act 3, Scene 5). 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.
Here are just a few of our favourite words that appear in Shakespeare’s plays for the first time in recorded history:
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 radiant
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