Shakespeare's words and inventions

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: 

ADMIRABLEadjective; wondrous, marvellous, extraordinary 

AMAZEMENTnoun; consternation, bewilderment 

ARCH-VILLIANnoun; a principal or extreme villain 

BUZZERnoun; one that buzzes 

CHEAPadverb; for little cost 

CLANGOUR  noun; clanging, ringing, reverberation 

EXCITEMENTnoun; something that excites or rouses 

EXPOSUREnoun; the fact or condition of being exposed 

FULLHEARTED  adjective; full of courage; totally confident 

GLOWverb; blush, redden, flush 

GOSSIPverb; to relate gossip; to talk together 

IMPARTIALadjective; indifferent, disinterested, detached 

KICKY-WICKYnoun; housewife 

LADYBIRDnoun; a small brightly coloured, often spotted beetle 

MONUMENTALadjective; kept as a memento, serving as a token, providing a memorial 

NIMBLE-FOOTEDadjective; able to move the feet agilely and neatly 

PEDANTICAL  adjective; pedantic, exaggerated, artificial 

PRICELESSadjective; having a value beyond any price 

RADIANCEnoun; the quality or state of being radiant 

RECLUSIVEadjective; secluded, cloistered, withdrawn from society 

RETIREMENTnoun; something to fall back on 

SANCTIMONIOUSadjective; holy, sacred, consecrated 

SHOOTING STARnoun; meteor, shooting star 

SKIMBLE-SKAMBLEadjective; rambling and confused, senseless 

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

STEALTHYadjective; slow, deliberate, and secret in action or character. 

TRANQUIL  adjective; free from agitation of mind or spirit 

VARLETRY  noun; mob, menials, ruffians 

YELPINGverb; to utter a sharp quick shrill cry 

ZANYnoun; stooge, clown’s assistant, mimic

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