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 is viewed by many as one of our greatest writers, we would like to point out that this is just not the case.
Where did we get this notion? It appears to have come about through a misreading of the data in the Oxford English Dictionary. In 1928, when this work was first published in full, it was hailed as one of the greatest lexicographic achievements of all time. One of the signature achievements of this dictionary was that the editors provided enormous historical context with millions of dated citations. For each headword, the editors gave what was at that time the earliest known use of that word. And for thousands of entries in the first edition of the OED, the first recorded use of a word was found in the works of William Shakespeare.
It should be noted that at no point did the editors of the OED say "We have X entries for which Shakespeare is the earliest known user; therefore he invented X number of words." This assumption was made by readers of that dictionary, who reasoned that if the OED hadn’t found an earlier use that no one else would either. However, most of the citations included in the OED were sent in by volunteers, and these volunteers, unsurprisingly, preferred searching for words in Shakespeare, as opposed to the kinds of documents that might have earlier uses of his "coinages"—such as legal documents, court memoranda, and turgid ecclesiastical screeds.
As lexicographers have gained access to electronic databases the number of words for which Shakespeare is the first recorded source has shrunk dramatically. Yet we still are regularly informed that "Shakespeare coined the word X" in formats ranging from Internet lists to academic papers. So in the spirit of lexical clarity—or, if you prefer, punctiliousness—we present you with a list of words that people love to say were invented by Shakespeare.
They were not.