“If Shakespeare required a word and had not met it in civilised discourse, he unhesitatingly made it up.”
– Anthony Burgess
The fact that Shakespeare added over 1700 words to the English language is a well-known fact that has been used to show off his creativity and ingenuity but how true is it? Shakespeare created new words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and creating entirely original words. Arguments have been made over whether adding prefixes to existing words counts as a new word or not. Does adding ‘arch’ to villain to create arch-villain mean a new word is created? ‘Assassination’ existed in a form in both English and Arabic before Macbeth, does this mean Shakespeare created that intention of the word? If we leave the deep discussion to the linguists and take the number as is, there are so many we use today. I will restrain myself from posting a massive list but there is a collection on a few sites which I’ve linked below. A small selection of created words include:
accused | addiction | advertising | amazement | arouse | bandit | bedroom | besmirch | blanket | blushing | bet | bump | buzzer | champion | compromise | courtship | critic | dauntless | dawn | deafening | drugged| dwindle | elbow | excitement | eyeball | fashionable | flawed | gloomy | gnarled | grovel | hint | hobnob | impartial | lonely | luggage | lustrous | majestic | marketable | metamorphise | mimic | negotiate | obsequiously | ode | olympian | outbreak | puking | rant | scuffle | skim milk | submerge | summit | swagger | torture | tranquil | worthless | zany
Of course, since Shakespeare added completely new words to the language he deserves credit for that, and many words he used existed already he merely popularised them. One thing he can be credited with, away from individual words, he was also the creator of phrases and terms we still use today. These are a few phrases that have survived the centuries and cemented themselves so deep in English language that it’s hard to believe we were once without them.
Come what may (Macbeth) | Heart of gold (Hamlet)
Good riddance (Troilus and Cressida) | Knock-knock (Macbeth)
All of a sudden (The Taming of the Shrew) | Faint-hearted (Henry IV part I)
Heart of gold (Henry V) | Wild-goose chase (Romeo and Juliet)
Brave new world (The Tempest) | Break the ice (The Taming of the Shrew)
For goodness’ sake (Henry VIII) | Foregone conclusion (Othello)
Love is blind (The Merchant of Venice) | The beast with two backs (Othello)
Assassination (Macbeth) | Bated breath (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Be-all and end-all (The Merchant of Venice) | One fell swoop (Macbeth)
Kill with kindness Macbeth | Twinkling of an eye (The Merchant of Venice)
Fair play (The Tempest) | Wild-goose chase (Romeo and Juliet)
As good luck would have it (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
There are also a range of words Shakespeare invented and used that have faded into history. On the Shakespeare-themed QI episode Stephen Fry discusses them and their meanings. Some of these include kickie-wickie, tanling, slugabed, boggler, wappened, and carlot. More can be found here. Another incredibly fun way to remember the words and phrases Shakespeare gave us is through song. Horrible Histories created a wonderful and catchy song about Shakespeare’s words which you can find here, they also did a skit about Shakespeare on Mastermind with his phrases. But, if you get carried away thinking Shakespeare quoted everything, there is are a few blogs dedicated to proving that not everything is from Shakespeare which you can find here and here.
Virginia Woolf asked in To the Lighthouse, “If Shakespeare had never existed…would the world have differed much from what it is today? Does the progress of civilisation depend upon great men? Is the lot of the average human being better now that in the time of the Pharaohs?” Looking at the range of words and phrases that we use every day without even thinking about their origins it would certainly be a different world if Shakespeare had never existed. So much of our language would be different, the deeper you fall into his dictionary of terms it’s really quite hard to imagine.
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