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.
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):
“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.