Making words up at ‘Will’

A look at Shakespeare’s coining skills 400 years after his death


William Shakespeare’s tomb at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon bears the inscription: Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forebear / To digg the dust enclosed heare; / Bleste be the man that spares thes stones, / And curst be he that moves my bones.

“What’s in a word?” When it comes to William Shakespeare, quite a lot, it seems.

Scholars estimate that 10,000 to 12,000 new words were coined between 1500 and 1650, of which half are still in use. And no one person is credited with coining more words than the Bard of Avon, who died April 23, 1616, 400 years ago.

The number of words in all Shakespeare’s plays varies, depending on the source, between 15,000 and 30,000, with most scholars settling on a precise 17,677, according to Bill Bryson’s “Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way.” Shakespeare has long been credited with first use of 1,700 words — 8.5 percent of his total vocabulary — according to linguist and author Richard Lederer.

Of the 14,000 authors quoted in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Shakespeare appears most frequently with 2,000 references. By comparison, the Bible has 800 entries and only three authors (John Milton, Ellen Glasgow and John Buchan) appear as many as 400 times. Bryson argues that, “No one in any tongue has made greater use of his language.”

Of course, the likelihood that Shakespeare actually plucked these words out of thin air and they instantly became part of everyday use is ridiculous. In the pre-Internet Elizabethan world, it is probable that he adopted many words he heard around Southwark, the location of the Globe Theatre, and incorporated them.

A large part of the attribution comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, the first edition of which was complied by hand. If one is going to compile a list of all the words in the English language, it makes sense to go to its greatest exponent as your primary source. Even the main repository of the plays, the First Folio of 1623, was collected from a variety of sources and words probably appear or not appear at the whim of the editors.

But whoever coined the words — and let’s not join the ridiculous kerfuffle about the plays’ authorship — old Bill certainly knew how to turn a phrase, and the words he used reflect that.

Rarely did Shakespeare create a word out of thin air. He made great use of conversion or functional shift. This involves shifting the function of a word from one part of speech to another. “The hearts that spaniel’d me at heels” (Antony and Cleopatra, 4.13), and “dog them at the heeles” (Richard II, 5.3.137), are two canine examples of a shift from noun to verb. Other examples include: champion, drug, film, humor, label and partner. Verbs shifting to nouns include: backing, luggage, perusal and shudder.

Shakespeare was also a fan of the suffix — accused, amazement, instinctively, partialize — often in a new part of speech. Words such as besmirch, invulnerable, reword and unreal, were derived with the addition of a prefix.


Musicians perform prior to a performance of William Shakespeare’s “As You LIke It” at the Globe Theatre in London in July 2015.

In three selected tragedies, “Hamlet,” “Othello” and “Macbeth,” the following words are credited to Shakespeare: buzzer; excitement; hush (a shift from a verb form to an adjective); outbreak; pander; perusal; rant; reword and trippingly from “Hamlet”; aerial, enmesh, futurity; hint; and seamy-side from “Othello”; and assassination; be-all and end-all; cow (in the sense of the verb meaning to intimidate), impede, stealthy and unreal from “Macbeth.”

Puke is first recorded in “As You Like It” and alligator makes its first appearance in Romeo and Juliet in the lines: “In his needy shop a tortoise hung, / An Alligator stuff’d and other skins (4.1.42-43).

Lederer writes of a student who came away from a performance of “Hamlet” complaining it “was nothing more than a bunch of clichés.” The same phrases that once may have been thought obscure or unusual, are now so commonplace as to border on trite. The following common expressions are to be found in “Hamlet” alone: mind’s eye, brevity is the soul of wit, primrose path, it smells to heaven, there’s the rub, not a mouse stirring, there’s method in his madness, dog will have his day, the apparell oft proclaims the man (modernized to clothes make the man), frailty thy name is woman, the lady doth protest too much, to the manor born and, of course, to be or not to be. Two other common phrases are found only four lines apart in Polinius’ advice to Laertes.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;

For loan oft loses both itself and friend,

And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

This, above all else, to thine own self be true (1.3.75-78).

Fittingly, the Bard himself is the subject of new words, including Shakespearean and Shakespeareana (memorabilia), and Shakespearolatry or Bardolatry for Shakespeare worshippers.

King Lear, in his madness may have best summed up his creator’s legacy: “No, they cannot touch me for coining, / I am the King himself (4.4.83-84). It may be that Shakespeare never wrote a truer word.

Andy Coughlan, ISSUE editor