Word Matters Podcast

Sorry, But Shakespeare Didn't Create That Word

Word Matters, Episode 6

One of the most cherished and enduring myths about the English language is that its vocabulary was largely populated through the genius of a single man: William Shakespeare. Without seeking to diminish the importance of the man who was undeniably influential, we would like to point out that this is just not the case.

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(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clip)

AMMON SHEA, HOST: People tend to equate the creation of words with ingenuity and hard work. If you think really, really hard, you set your mind to it, you come up with a great idea for a word especially if it’s a word for which there’s a need in the language, one day your special creation can grow up and be in a real dictionary.

EMILY BREWSTER, HOST: Coming up on Word Matters: how William Shakespeare influenced the English language. I’m Emily Brewster and Word Matters is a new podcast from Merriam-Webster, in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary’s vantage point.

(music interlude)

EMILY: Ah, the immoral Bard. No discussion of classic English literature is complete without mentioning William Shakespeare. His influence is undeniable. But did Shakespeare actually invent the thousands of words often credited to him? Here’s Ammon Shea with the real story of Shakespeare’s creations.

AMMON: One of the most, if not the most, beloved writers in English is of course William Shakespeare. And one of the things that people love to know about him, so to speak, is that he singlehandedly created an enormous portion of the English language. And the only problem with this of course is that it is not at all true.

PETER SOKOLOWSKI, HOST: But you’re telling me he didn’t coin all those words?

AMMON: No, Shakespeare did not coin all those words. Before we can say he coined all those words we would have to kind of establish a number of other things, such as what is a word? What does it mean to coin a word? What does it mean to be a Shakespeare? I think one of the things that’s interesting about this question of why so many of us have come to believe that William Shakespeare created 1,000, 5,000, 10,000 words, whatever the number is. It’s an interesting question because I think it comes up for a number of reasons and I think one of them is that people tend to equate the creation of words with ingenuity and hard work. If you think really, really hard, you set your mind to it, you come up with a great idea for a word especially if it’s a word for which there’s a need in the language, one day your special creation can grow up and be in a real dictionary.

NEIL SERVEN, HOST: It’s like building a barn or something.

AMMON: Right. Yeah.

NEIL: You know, you’re proud of it once it’s done and there.

AMMON: Or thinking you can invent something just by coming up with a really good idea.

PETER: Well I think that’s part of this, because Shakespeare’s considered the great genius of literature and this is really about the inspiration of genius, isn’t it? Creating language, creating words.

AMMON: Right. Except this is of course not really how language works.

PETER: Exactly.

NEIL: And there’s no genius behind it.

AMMON: One of the other reasons I think that there’s been a great amount of confusion about this is due to a misinterpretation about how dictionaries in general work, and one dictionary in particular. And that dictionary of course is the mighty Oxford English Dictionary. And the OED as we call it is different from a lot of dictionaries in that it’s diachronic. It’s historic; rather than looking at a little slice of the language in a specific time, it’s looking at the breadth of the English language.

PETER: Diachronic, the Greek meaning “across time.”

AMMON: Right.

EMILY: Should we also just interject here that you, Ammon, wrote a book about reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary in one year?

AMMON: I did do that, and so I came across, I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare through that.

EMILY: Yes you did.

AMMON: In kind of chopped-up fashion. Because the Oxford English Dictionary is a historical dictionary, they attempt to show the way the language was used across the ages by providing citations of use. And they have millions and millions of citations and this is one of the great joys of their dictionary, is it’s so thoroughly suffused with the meat and bones of our language. Of particular importance to the editors working on the OED has been to show as much as possible the earliest recorded use of every word and every sense of every word. However, we should note that the earliest recorded use of a word is not actually the same thing as the invention of the word.

PETER: Right.

AMMON: And that’s the real sticking point for many people. One of these reasons why this is so is because the spoken use of a word tends to come before the written use of a word.

PETER: And if that was in 1550, we don’t have a good record of it.

AMMON: I do think that in the digital age, that we’re kind of flipping that on its head. I think we’re getting more and more cases where the written use of a word, like LOL, was probably written before it was spoken. So I think we’re undergoing a period of change. But certainly for Shakespeare’s time, things were spoken more often before they were written. But another thing is that it’s very difficult to tell when a word’s been invented because most writers don’t announce “Here is a word which I have hewn from the granite of my soul and I am now bequeathing to the English-speaking people” when they come up with a word, and I’m willing to bet that many people who are in fact inventing a word don’t even realize that they’re inventing it. They’re just writing some stuff down and “that looks like a word, looks like a word to me, does it look like a word to you?” And their editor says “yeah sure, I understand what you’re talking about, must be a word.” And there you go. When the first edition of the OED was completed in 1928, people noticed that Shakespeare was the name associated with the first known use of a large number of words. Thousands of words. More than any other single author, except for Chaucer. And Charlotte Brewer at the University of Oxford has suggested the reason that Chaucer was so heavily cited for earliest known uses of words is because his works were heavily overrepresented in the time period that he was writing.

PETER: Of course. It’s a smaller corpus, as it were. There aren’t that many books that were printed in the 15th century.

EMILY: The 14th.

PETER: The 14th century.

AMMON: Right, and this is similar to what happens with Shakespeare, because one of the things that was really fascinating about the OED is that it’s often been referred to as the great first example of crowdsourcing. They sent out thousands of requests for volunteer readers because they were too busy writing the dictionary. They didn’t have time to read all the books.

PETER: So to make it clear, so the public would read a book and then notice funny or interesting or new or old words, and then…

AMMON: Or just representative.

PETER: Representative words of a given author, and then mail them to the dictionary editors so they would have that evidence to put in the dictionary.

AMMON: Right. So they ended up storing all these in what was known as the Scriptorium.

PETER: The Scriptorium.

AMMON: That is, a metal shed set half into the ground, where James Murray, the editor in chief, worked. And there were millions and millions of slips of paper. It was wonderfully organized and disorganized, I think, at the same time. But one of the problems is that if you’re a volunteer reader, would you rather read William Shakespeare or would you rather read like an inventory of a dry goods merchant? Most people would go for Shake, and so he was really overrepresented. Certainly much more than the inventory writers. But he was also read a lot more than, say, Thomas Nashe or Thomas Dekker, his contemporaries. Before we get into the question of did he invent these words, again what does it mean to say somebody has invented a word? We at Merriam-Webster often have people writing us, how do I get a word into the dictionary? I’ve invented a word. And what does that mean? So for instance, Shakespeare was the first person that we know of to have used the word allicholly, A-L-L-I-C-H-O-L-L-Y, and the OED lists it as the first person to use it as a noun, as the first person to use it as an adjective. So do we say that he’s invented two words? Has he invented one word? Also, allicholly is actually just a play on words on melancholy, and melancholy has been around for hundreds of years. So did he invent allicholy or is it just him being playful? And then on top of that…

EMILY: You can be playful and invent a word.

AMMON: Right, you can, but Thomas Dekker used a very similar pun, malicholly, almost identical to the one Shakespeare used about twelve years before Shakespeare used it, but there’s no record of Thomas Dekker using that word because there’s no entry for malicholly in the OED.

NEIL: I’m thinking about how many of the words that people say they do invent are usually portmanteaus of that idea. It’s like taking two known parts of pre-existing words, coming up with some concept that might fit how they were feeling that day or whatever, and then..

PETER: I wish there was a word for like a combination of lunch and dinner.

NEIL: Right. Or sad and happy, or something like that. And so they say “oh, I’ve invented this word shappy.” You understand that they’ve sent this to us with the idea that we’re going to recognize both those parts and then already know what is going to be meant even without having the word in any kind of context.

AMMON: Right. Shakespeare did a lot of that. He was also very good at compounding, so he’d be one fo the first to use bone-weary or something like that. But these are just two distinct words he’s using in conjunction. And over time, as we know, open compounds tend to become hyphenated and then they become closed compounds, and so a lot of the words that we think of using for the first time were just two words that he used together and they became fixed. In part because he had this great, great influence as a writer. But a lot of the other words for which he’s listed as providing the first evidence, they’re really just what we call functional shift. And functional shift is when a word takes on a new part of speech. So, for instance, Shakespeare is listed as the first person to use the word monster as a verb. To turn into a monster. “I’ll monster you.” But monster had been in use for 200 years already, so did Shakespeare invent the word monster? I don’t think we would say that. Nobody’s writing to us and saying “I’ve used perspicacious as a verb. Did I invent a word?” No. You just think you kind of changed the part of speech. And then a lot of the other words which he’s given the first known evidence, he’s just spelling it in a slightly different way. So, for instance, there’s an entry in the OED for facinorious, which means “extremely wicked,” which he was the first one to use facinorious that we’ve seen, but facinorous without the second I was already in use for about 50 years.

PETER: And spelling variants were common at a when, I think Shakespeare spelled his own name four or five different ways.

AMMON: I think he was up to seven.

PETER: And the point being, spelling variants were common, especially because there was no dictionary.

AMMON: Right.

PETER: There wasn’t a standard.

AMMON: Right. And one of the things that I think must be really irritating to the editors at the OED is that they have never said Shakespeare invented X number of words. They’re much too smart to say that because they know better than anyone else that the number of words for which he is attributed as the first author is diminishing every year. Because they’re currently editing the whole dictionary. So we’ve gone down from several thousand in 1928 to by 2014 when I first checked it was down to about 1,590 words for which he was listed as a the first author. That’s now down to about 1,472.

EMILY: Do you have any words that we are certain that he coined?

AMMON: I can’t, quite honestly. I mean I’m sure there are some, but it’s impossible to say, because we routinely see other authors being playful with language or compounding or using affixes in an inventive way. And we routinely see that other authors like Thomas Nashe or Thomas Dekker have done this before him and are not recognized for it. So I would say that anything which we think of Shakespeare having invented, it's possible that he did not and it’s possible that he did. What I would say is, has been found, is that I think more so than most certainly and more so perhaps than any other writer is that he was extraordinarily playful in his uses. So it’s not just that there were several thousand words for which he had the first recorded use in the Oxford English Dictionary; there were I think at one point 6,000 sense for which he had the first recorded use. So what he was doing much more than anybody else was kind of stretching the semantic content of the words he was using. He was pushing words, he was making them do what he wanted, he was using them in very, very playful, ludic ways.

EMILY: I still love writers who do that.

AMMON: Absolutely.

EMILY: There’s nothing like the pleasure of reading someone who is writing creatively and who is pushing words into new territories. And people whose business it is to write, some of them are drawn to do this for their own pleasure.

AMMON: And some of them are inventing language. And I’m sure that some of the words that Shakespeare used he was inventing, or he was, as far as he knew, inventing.

PETER: And I also think there’s something about English in that moment, around 1600, that was expanding constantly. I mean that was a period of great expansion in the language. There’s almost an aesthetic of expansion, of growth, that Shakespeare was inventing words left and right. I say that because what I studied was the French literature of that period and a little bit after, and the great French playwright Molière, for example, but the others who all together could be considered the French Shakespeare—Corneille and Racine and Molière–their highest aesthetic goal was to use as few different words as possible in the context of a single play, because that was this neoclassical ideal, that if you really wrote clearly then you didn’t need all these extra words. As opposed to this explosive growth that happens in Shakespeare. I just think it’s a fascinating contrast. He was clearly someone who was at play in language, who was having a ball. That’s why we love him.

AMMON: It’s such a kind of perfect reason to love his language use. And to me seems so at-odds with this desire to quantify something which is so unknowable. Like, why do we care how many words he invented?

PETER: I think people look at a dictionary as measuring something in an almost mathematical way, and of course that’s not the way language works.

AMMON: Sure, it’s kind of an anti-math.

NEIL: We should also think about the fact that, at least in terms of the plays, Shakespeare was writing words with the intent of other people speaking them. Apart from the directions, the quotes were supposed to be lines that other people were then assigned to speak. And that was how many people were going to encounter the words, were going to be spoken by actors, not being written in a folio.

PETER: So they’d have to be understood, both by the actor…

NEIL: They’d have to be understood, pronounced, heard, and then remembered. Printed word, you get to go back to it and kinda think back to what the author was intending by meaning. You have to remember what was spoken when you see a play. I do think there’s something in the equation that needs to be credited, I guess, when we think of how Shakespeare wrote, what words he chose to use, why he chose to use them.

PETER: There’s a theatrical context.

NEIL: There’s a theatrical context.

PETER: What’s interesting is, what you’re saying is that also, that means he assumed the audience would understand them.

NEIL: Yeah.

PETER: And I think that’s interesting. You know, Ammon, you bring up this issue of how many words, if you’re measuring such a thing, how many words does Shakespeare coin. Or really the technical that you’re saying is how many words for which Shakespeare is the first known quoted author in the Oxford English Dictionary. And I was just looking at an exact contemporary of Shakespeare, John Florio, who was not a playwright. He was a translator and he was a lexicographer. So he translated Montaigne’s essays, but he also wrote one of the best known bilingual dictionaries, the Italian-English bilingual dictionary of the Elizabethan era. And he’s cited as the first use of 1,200 in the Oxford English Dictionary. And what’s interesting to me about that is that they were almost all taken from his very early dictionary, right around 1600, and it’s interesting too because it means that a lot of those words we have to assume were not expected to be easy to understand. Because at that time lexicographers were usually choosing words that seemed hard or difficult or uncommon, and putting them in their dictionaries.

AMMON: One of the things that’s interesting, though, about when you look at data like this you see well when, if you look at the years when there were enormous spikes in the Oxford English Dictionary, it tends to represent canonical texts rather than technological jumps. So for instance the year that the Tyndale Bible was published, say 1533, you have an enormous spike because all these new words are really being read and coming in. 1755, Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. There are all these years where you have these giant jumps. There was no great technological or linguistic invention, aside of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary.

PETER: Right, so they’re not taking a census of the language in the way that we can with a modern electronic corpus today, if we have a well-balanced grouping of contemporary writing. Because if, going back, your point is a good one, it’s only the great writers who got published and got republished and got read and taught, and they’re the ones that we are studying.

AMMON: Well not only, and I will say that the OED, the editors there have done a really magnificent job of trawling through the kind of seas of unpublished writing. And they do a great amount of really hardcore, in-depth research into things like handwritten manifests, ships logs, things like that. You know, they’ll look at the council of the privy back in the, you know, Elizabethan times, and they’ll read the lists of what linens were taken out of some storage chest. And they’re getting great information from that. However, that’s not where all their, say, volunteer readers were focusing their efforts. And so you will get these kind of imbalances and it shows with somebody like Shakespeare. And I do want to stress once again that the OED has never claimed to say this is the number of words any given author has invented. They’ve been interpreted that way. And I think if we want to give a kind of fittingly exact number of how many words did Shakespeare invent, we can say it was probably a not inconsiderable number. That’s about as exact as we can get.

NEIL: I do think it’s worth maybe mentioning something here about how this sort of identifies one of the paradoxes of the lexicographer, which is that we seek words to define that are not currently defined in the dictionary, we look for usages, we make citations of those usages, we defined based on those usages, but quite often by the time we have noticed the word, it is well-past its newness, at least in terms of the birth of the word, in terms of the planting of that evidence. So there’s this scraping back that has to be done, and there are people on our staff whose jobs is to do that. Once the word has been noticed, to then scrape back and then look at all the times it was ignored up to that point. It never came across our desks, it never came across our consciousnesses. It just was there, but we never saw it, and then we have to go back and then look to all the times we just passed over it or it never came to us, to find out when evidence of first use was. It’s kind of like, if we were perfect humans who heard and picked up everything, we wouldn’t need to do that.

EMILY: But in our defense, we’re not trying to enter a word as soon as it’s first encountered.

NEIL: That is right.

EMILY: We are entering the words that are established in the language, so I’d, we don’t need to hear every word’s first utterance but we are committed to providing a date of the word’s first known published use. Or first known print use. And that is what we then have to look back and research and uncover.

NEIL: Right, we certainly wouldn’t enter and define a word the first time we heard it, but if we heard it that first time we would certainly want to make a note of it.


NEIL: I think for the possibility of then needing to pay attention to it later. Of course sometimes, there’s also another paradox, which is that a lot of new words just then never get used again and then there’s no point, really.

AMMON: Thomas Dekker has been complaining about malicholly for like 400-something years, now.

EMILY: Poor Thomas Dekker.

PETER: And you’re getting to the real root of this, which is that, we haven’t said out loud, which is that we need this evidence. We have to have evidence of the word’s use before it goes into the dictionary. And that’s the premise of all of our work and certainly the premise of the colleagues we have at the Oxford English Dictionary.

(music outro)

EMILY: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or send us an email at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I’m Emily Brewster. Word Matters is a production of Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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