Shakespeare’s Contributions to English (part 1)

(Looking for Part 2? Click here.)

If you want to charge someone with a crime, there’s a word for it: you accuse them.  If you want to give a winning athlete a title, there’s a term for it: you call them a champion.  If you’re in a rush, you hurry.  If something’s grand and wonderful, it’s majestic.  If you’re sick you might puke; if you’re arrogant, you might swagger.  And, if Shakespeare hadn’t been a playwright, we wouldn’t have all those very useful words.  William Shakespeare introduced nearly 2,000 words to our language, hundreds of phrases, and new styles of writing.  This assertion is not baseless.  English owes a great debt to this monumental figure.

Every single italicized word in the previous paragraph was coined by Shakespeare… or at least first recorded by him.

In Shakespeare’s time, there was an explosion of words being created.  Some scholars put the total that have actually survived at around 12,000.  These words came mostly from Latin, and while they didn’t necessarily fill gaps where we had no word to describe something, they created many synonyms.  Over time, the words changed meaning to some degree so now we are better able to make slight distinctions that we were otherwise unable to make before.  The way most of these new words came into use was through written works: one major example is Shakespeare’s plays.  Other examples are the dictionaries of the time (i.e. A Table Alphabeticall of hard usual English words, by Robert Cawdrey).

Some reasons that Shakespeare created so many new words were:

  • he didn’t have a word that would fit exactly what he wanted to say, and
  • he had a word, but it didn’t fit in iambic pentameter (a type of meter of poetry).

When someone writes thousands of lines in this demanding style, audiences are willing to give the writer a break when he has to come up with some new words.  One usage that gives this impression is the introduction of “I have got” for “I have.”  This adds a syllable, but keeps the same meaning.  It could have easily been a way for Shakespeare to fix up a line and give it the right rhythm and length.

There is so much to write about with respect to Shakespeare and his many many gifts to the English language. More to come…

Have you ever made up a word to suit your needs? Did it catch on?

Update: Continue here with Part 2.

0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    I am not sure if i ever was the “author” of a word but I am very aware how words catch on and get used, whether or not they are “in the dictionary”

    My Teenager is famous for adding colorful new words to our lives!

    How did Shakespere get away with making up words to fit his writings? Did anyone “call him out”?

    just wondering.

  2. 2

    I tried to when I was younger but nothing stuck. However, Rainn Wilson just coined a word on Twitter: “Grellow” Adjective. The Color of a Tennis Ball. I like it. We’ll see if it catches on.

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  1. Words of the day /  A Love of Words 28 08 09
  2. Shakespeare’s Contributions to English (Part 2) /  A Love of Words 01 09 09

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