What Hath Shakespeare Wrought? Words, Words, Words!

Okay, so most of us don’t find a way to toss “wherefore” and “forsooth” into our text messages, but the language of Shakespeare still trips off most English speakers’ tongues, in some fashion, every day. Think of it as Big Will Hunting: the Bard was forever on the lookout for the right word, and if it wasn’t there, he would simply invent it.

The exact number of neologisms (new words) to credit him for is the stuff that debates are made on, but many scholars maintain that the number of words he either coined or made memorable goes north of his 2014 age of 450.

Paul Dickson in his Authorisms: Words Wrought by Writers devotes considerable discourse to the question, while reminding us that Shakespeare not only coined words but was also the first to actually use some 1700+ existing words. If you’re going to be a game changer when it comes to growing more words, it helps to write them down.

Words as disparate as “arouse,” “buzzer” (as a person who makes a buzzing sound), “critic” and “dauntless” all owe a debt to Shakespeare, according to Coined by Shakespeare authors Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless. So do “watchdog,” “yelping” and “zany.” Where’s the word beginning with x, you may be wondering? Other than proper names, words that began with x were rare in the 1500s and would remain so for the next couple centuries. The great lexicographer Samuel Johnson indicated, somewhat dismissively, in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language that “x is a letter, which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.”

We tend to think of “zany” as an adjective, but Shakespeare deployed it as a noun. That was one of his tricks for getting a word to work—playing with its part of speech. Some tricks worked better than others. His adjectival use of “advertising” never quite caught on.

For all those language lovers who shudder over the verbification of nouns—think “impact” and “Google” for starters—blame the Bard for setting the precedent. He turned “cake” into a verb for the first time, along with “champion” and “cow.”

But Shakespeare was just (brilliantly) doing what his English language was always doing: evolving with time, customs and the culture. Who knows what he might have done back in the sixteenth century, had there been emoticons?

Image source: Ron Ellis / Shutterstock.com


About Mim Harrison

Mim Harrison is the author of three books on the English language, Wicked Good Words, Smart Words (both, Penguin/Perigee) and Words at Work (Walker Publishing). A longtime professional writer and editor, she is also a producer of specialty books that are published in cooperation with leading cultural institutions. Her interest in languages began during her misadventures as a college student abroad.