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Shakespeare’s linguistic legacy

William Shakespeare died four hundred years ago this month and my local library is celebrating the anniversary. It sounds a bit macabre when you put it that way, of course, so they are billing it as a celebration of Shakespeare’s legacy. I took this celebratory occasion to talk with my students about Shakespeare’s linguistic legacy. Often, we hear that legacy stated in terms of the vastness of his vocabulary and the number of words he contributed to the English language.

In the middle of twentieth century, Alfred Hart, then a leading authority on Shakespeare’s vocabulary, wrote that Shakespeare is … “credited by the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary with being the first user of about 3,200 words.”

Sometimes, people take this to mean that Shakespeare actually made up 3,200 words, perhaps because it’s easier to say “Shakespeare coined thousands of new words” than “Shakespeare is credited by the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary with being the first user of thousands of new words.”

But, as one student asked in my class, “If Shakespeare used so many new words, how did anyone understand him?”


It turns out that the 3,200 number suggested by Alfred Hart was a bit high. Shakespeare’s canon became so well-known and accessible that for a long time his was the earlier citation that could readily be found. As more texts have become available and searchable by computers and as OED lexicographers have revisited word histories, the number of first citations has dropped to about 1,600. That’s about the same amount as were created in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) in Helmolt, H.F., ed. History of the World. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1902. Author unknown, but the portrait has several centuries – from the Perry-Castañeda Library, University of Texas at Austin. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

You can do your own Shakespeare research, incidentally, by using the Advanced Search feature in the OED online. If you type “Shakespeare” in the search box and select “First Quotation” in the accompanying drop down menu, you’ll get the entries for which Shakespeare has the earliest citation (my search retrieved 1,614 citations). You can also search by individual plays if you want to get really specific.

It also turns out that Shakespeare was not alone in the practice of coining words, so audiences may have been used to a certain amount of verbal innovation and flexibility. Neology was quite the fashion in the late Renaissance period. Scholars estimate that during the years Shakespeare was writing, roughly 1588-1612, nearly 8,000 new words came into the language. (Vivian Salmon and Edwina Burness, drawing on The Chronological English Dictionary, give a figure of 7,968).

Many of the first citations from Shakespeare’s works were novel uses of existing prefixes and suffixes, like un– or –er, as in uneducated and swaggerer. It would be relatively easy—one might say it would be undifficult—to figure out their meaning.

Another way that Shakespeare created new words was by turning nouns into verbs, as in Measure for Measure, (Act iii, scene 2) where the Lucio tells the Duke (who is incognito, disguised as a friar), that Lord Angelo is strictly upholding the law in the Duke’s absence. Lucio explains that “Lord Angelo dukes it well in his absence.” Shakespeare packs a lot of meaning in the word duke. Try to rephrase the line without that verbed noun.

Shakespeare also used many adjective compounds, like hot-blooded, cold-blooded, green-eyed, bare-faced, dog-weary, ill-got, lack-lustre, and crop-ear, which would also be fairly transparent in context.

So, people could understand Shakespeare because many of his novelties words were grammatically and culturally transparent and there were really not all that many of them. If the average play had 3,000 lines, then less than only 1.5% of Shakespeare’s lines had a first-cited word.

Four centuries into Shakespeare’s legacy, perhaps the more important question is whether we can still understand Shakespeare’s words today. Not all of his new words are transparent today. Consider the compound fancy-free, which we know today from the expression “footloose and fancy-free,” meaning free of responsibilities. Shakespeare used the word differently though.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act ii, Scene 1), Oberon, the king of the fairies, recounts how Cupid’s arrow missed a young maiden (hitting instead a white flower that would then be used to create a love-potion):

Sir Joseph Noel Paton – The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania – Google Art Project 2. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quench’d in the chaste beams of the watery moon,
And the imperial votaress passéd on
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.”

Shakespeare is using fancy-free here to mean “unaffected by love.” It’s the use of fancy that we still find in the expression “to fancy someone.”

Here’s another example, from Coriolanus, the tragedy about the Roman General Caius Marcius. In Act V. Scene 3, the title character affirms his love for his wife Virgilia, with an oath to Juno, the goddess of marriage:

“Now, by the jealous queen of heaven, that kiss I carried from thee, dear; and my true lip Hath virgin’d it e’er since.”

Shakespeare makes a verb out of the noun virgin, meaning that Coriolanus would hold the kiss dear and treasure it.

Words like fancy-free and to virgin challenge us and sometimes confuse us. They send us to the dictionary and to context in the plays. They force us to listen and read slowly, again and again. They make us ponder language. This is the part of Shakespeare’s linguistic legacy that I like to celebrate. It makes me think about his words, perhaps even to virgin them. Fancy that.

Featured Image Credit: “Procession of Characters from Shakespeare’s Plays” by Unknown artist (manner of Thomas Stothard). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Recent Comments

  1. Timothy Swain

    Edwin L. Battistella is from my own state, Oregon; how pleasant to discover that–while being miles away from England (on the northwest coast of the U.S.) there’s a lot here — Monica Huggett directs the Portland Baroque Orchestra (she’s a loyal British citizen) & has been for years…the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, which has been going on for years & years–& on & on. Cheers!

  2. Rikita Tyson

    Thank you for an enjoyable post! I’ll certainly spend more time with my students on the word “fancy-free” the next time I teach Midsummer.

    I wonder about the interpretation here of Shakespeare’s use of “virgin” as a verb, though. I take it that you’re reading the antecedent of “it” in Coriolanus’ “my true lip hath virgin’d it e’er since” as the kiss in the previous line – so “virgining,” whatever that means, is something being done to the kiss itself. But I suspect that Shakespeare is actually using a verb + it construction that he uses elsewhere when he turns a noun into a verb – as when he uses “foot it” to mean dance (R&J, The Tempest), or in a phrase like “I’ve come to wive it wealthily in Padua.”

    In that case, the “true lip” is what’s doing the virgining – and if that’s true, then “to virgin” means “to behave like a virgin,” not “to hold dear” or “to treasure.” I think Coriolanus is saying that his lip has not kissed anyone else since he last kissed his wife, not that he has treasured her kiss (although presumably he has!).

  3. Richard M. Waugaman, M.D.

    In his excellent article, Professor Battistella cites the work of Vivian Salmon. In her 1970 article on “Some functions of Shakesperean word-formation,” she states that Shakespeare shows a proclivity for using “neologisms” beginning with dis- . As an example of adding “dis-” to a verb that began as a noun, she quotes a passage from Richard II—”you have fed upon my signories/ Dispark’d my parks”(III.I.22-23). That is, turned a private park into a common. The OED does give a much earlier instance of “disparked,” in 1542. But Early English Books Online gives only three uses of “disparked” prior to 1572; its first recorded use of “disparking” is not until 1602.

    In September, 1572, Edward de Vere wrote to his father-in-law Lord Burghley, “…as for my timber at Colne Parke; therein, I had no other meaninge save onlie to make, as it were, a yearlie rente, so as I may, withe ought [without] disparkinge the grounds.” That is, this letter apparently coins the gerund “disparking” some thirty years before its first recorded use by the admittedly incomplete EEBO database.

    There’s also an anonymous 1589 book probably written by Edward de Vere. It calls him one of the best authors of comedies, and the best courtier poet of the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. It adds that he preferred to write anonymously. And this book, The Art of English Poesie, coined over 1,000 words, according to the search of the OED that Professor Battistella described.

    Once again, an objective assessment of all the literary evidence offers strong support for the controversial theory that “Shake-speare” was one pen name of Edward de Vere.

  4. sicinius

    Nice work, Rikita.

    Turning a noun into a transitive, and occasionally intransitive verb is one of Will’s signature tricks and whilst people can become impatient and accuse readers of overinvesting a phrase with meaning, I’m with you all the way on ‘virgining’.

    If you look at

    ” why he wants the crown at all?
    Was ever king that joy’d an earthly throne, ”

    it’s easy to settle for ‘joy’d’ as an abbreviation of ‘enjoyed’ but Will could be at it again, using the noun ‘joy’ as a verb which would also have the effect, for French speakers, of punning on the French verb for sexual climax ‘jouir’ from their noun for ‘joy’.

    The trick can be found everywhere in the canon and his fellow Bankside playwrights imitated it, though less successfully (no shame in copying from the best). It famously appears in the Hand D addition to Sir Thomas More, in the appeal for compassionate treatment of immigrants, which could have been written yesterday (though not by Donald Trump or David Cameron).

    “Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
    Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
    Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
    Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
    Plodding to th’ ports and costs for transportation,
    And that you sit as kings in your desires,
    Authority quite silent by your brawl,
    And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
    What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
    How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
    How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
    Not one of you should live an aged man,
    For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
    With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
    Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
    Would feed on one another.”

    You’ll have to excuse Dr Waugaman. He was bitten by a dead bee, since when he has believed that the plays were written by a talentless aristocrat. These things happen. It’s hard to see a greedy, selfish, grasping peer, whose politics were far to the right of Trump’s, writing Sir Thomas More’s speech, isn’t it?

  5. Nat Whilk

    Most enjoyable! Rikita Tyson has set me on an Easter-egg hunt for verbed nouns + it constructions, which Shakespeare loved: “Ile Deuill-Porter it no further” and “Ile Queene it no inch farther.” Thomas Fuller (1650) outplays him with “Hyssop doth tree it in Judea.”

    Dr. Waugaman—who haunts all open Shakespeare conversations—believes that a letter of Edward de Vere’s dated 1572 “apparently coins the gerund ‘disparking’ some thirty years before its first recorded use by the admittedly incomplete EEBO database.”

    Did he look? In EEBO, in his Chronicle at large and meere history (1569), Richard Grafton writes of “the enlarging of Commons and disparking of Parkes.”

  6. Mike Leadbetter

    A couple more (examples everywhere in Shakespeare’s work).

    Was ever king that joy’d an earthly throne.
    And could command no more content than I?”
    Henry VI, 4.9

    ‘Was ever king’ is a shockingly bad bit of grammar but when allied to Will’s next exercise in lyrical compression, it produces a memorable line with a throbbing internal vitality. Although “joy’d” looks like an abbreviation of “enjoy’d”, Will has cunninlngly taken its root, the strong noun, “joy”, and turned it into a verb. The dexterity of the trick gives the two lines a shimmering beauty. Having roomed with Huguenots, Will would been aware of the the the identical French construction (joie, jouir) and its orgasmic sexual connotations. Another flourish increasing the density of Will’s poetical payload.

    It is essential to remind oneself that Will’s two lines were not written for publication in an anthology of verse. They are simply two lines of dialogue intended to be spoken by an actor.

    So with Sir Thomas More, now securely lodged in the canon.

    “For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
    With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
    Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
    Would feed on one another.”

    The then relatively new noun ‘shark’ turned into a powerful verb in a plea for fair treatment of immigrants that could have been written yesterday.

    As Nat has pointed out, readers like Dr Waugaman do not seem to be alert to anything other than possible pointers to to Edward de Vere. And even when they think they have found them, they usually turn out to be pointing somewhere else.

  7. Knit Witted

    @ Nat Whilk

    What about the even earlier ‘disparked’ entires beginning in 1550 …

    Title: All such proclamacions, as haue been sette furthe by the Kynges Maiestie (and passed the print) from the last daie of Ianuarij, in the firste yere of his highnes reigne, vnto the last daie of Ianuarij, beeying in the .iiij. yere of his said moste prosperous reigne, that is to saie, by the space of iiij. whole yeres. Anno 1550
    Author: England and Wales. Sovereign (1547-1553 : Edward VI)
    Publication Info: [Imprinted at London : By Richard Grafton, Printer to the kynges maiestie, Anno. 1550 [i.e. 1551]]
    Collection: Early English Books Online

    ‘of their awne hedde and aucthoritie, assembled theim selfes, plucked doune mennes hedges disparked their parkes, …’


    Title: Anno quinto reginæ Elizabethe. At the parliament holden at Wesmynster the .xii. of Ianuary, in the fyfth yere of the raigne of our soueraigne lady, Elizabeth by the grace of god, of England, Fraunce, and Irelande, quene, defendour of the the fayth. [et]c. To the hygh pleasure of almyghtye God, and the weale publique of this realme, were enacted as foloweth
    Author: England and Wales.
    Publication Info: [Imprynted at London : In Powles Churchyarde by Richarde Iugge and Iohn Cawood, printers to the quenes maiestie], 1563 [i.e. 1564?]
    Collection: Early English Books Online

    ‘or to any Parke or Parkes heretofore lawefully vsed as Parkes, and beyng nowe disparked, …’


    Title: A summarie of Englyshe chronicles conteynyng the true accompt of yeres, wherein euery kyng of this realme of England began theyr reigne, howe long they reigned: and what notable thynges hath bene doone durynge theyr reygnes. Wyth also the names and yeares of all the baylyffes, custos, maiors, and sheriffes of the citie of London, sens the Conqueste, dyligentely collected by Iohn Stovv citisen of London, in the yere of our Lorde God 1565. Whervnto is added a table in the end, conteynyng all the principall matters of this booke. Perused and allowed accordyng to the Quenes maiesties iniunctions.
    Author: Stow, John, 1525?-1605.
    Publication Info: [London] : In ædibus Thomæ Marshi, [1565]
    Collection: Early English Books Online

    ‘with parkes, pastures, and inclosures made by the gentilmē: who required the same to be disparked & set among the commons.’


    Title: The summarie of English chronicles (lately collected and published) nowe abridged and continued tyl this present moneth of Marche, in the yere of our Lord God. 1566. By J.S.
    Author: Stow, John, 1525?-1605.
    Publication Info: Imprinted at London : in Fletestrete by Thomas Marshe, [1566]
    Collection: Early English Books Online

    ‘with parkes, pastures, and inclosures made by the gentilmē, who requi¦red the same to be disparked & set amōg the cōmons.’

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