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In the Doctor Who episode “The Shakespeare Code,” Shakespeare’s word combinations prove magical enough to free a witch-like alien species who are attempting to take over Earth and turn it back to fire and blood. His “new and brilliant words” then serve to imprison them. Luckily we live in a world with Shakespeare and people. If Shakespeare’s words are strong enough to summon exiled aliens, they must have been unnaturally special. However, when faced with the question, “How many words did Shakespeare invent?” is no easy task.
Shakespeare wrote at least 38 plays and 154 sonnets, and the official count is 884,647 words and 118,406 lines. Shakespeare’s longest play is hamlet, implying the first use of the word “rant”. His shortest piece is The Comedy of Mistakes, a wacky, confusion-driven play that includes the first use of the word “gossip.” The Oxford English Dictionary has estimated that Shakespeare invented around 1,700 words.
The majority of Shakespeare’s plays were not published during his lifetime – the first major collection of his works was the First Folio, published in 1623. Without this folio we would not have the majority of Shakespeare’s plays in circulation today. After the publication of the first folio, three more folios were published in 1632, 1664 and 1685. In this day and age, we have countless editions of Shakespeare’s plays, some geared towards the performer and others more geared towards the classroom.
How to invent a word
When we say that Shakespeare invented a word, it usually means that his work was the first written documentation of a word. The original volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) were published between 1884 and 1928 and contained a plethora of Shakespearean quotations. Because Shakespeare’s work was so dominant in the OED, over 1,700 words were believed to be the first time the word had been used in the English language. However, this is a debatable number.
The first documented use of a word is important in lexicography, the process of compiling a dictionary. In Elizabethan England it was thought that only 30% of men and 10% of women could read and write. Words that are commonly used in conversation could not always make it into the written record. So when we say that Shakespeare invented words, it’s not that he hurled new gibberish at his audience that they had never heard before. He used many words common to the language, but it took Shakespeare’s plays to preserve them.
Shakespearean scholar David McInnis explains the OED’s attribution as a sort of bias against its favorite literary masters: “The Complete Works of Shakespeare has been frequently searched for early examples of word usage, although words or phrases may have been used earlier, by less famous or fewer writers.” The OED was put together by a group of people drawing on knowledge they had in common, so it didn’t have the best peer review process.
In its current state, the OED is committed to reviewing every documented word and confirming the historical accuracy of its lineage. You are about to update entries for many words previously identified as first used by Shakespeare and find texts that predate when Shakespeare’s plays were published or performed.
It is still a matter of debate which words can be positively attributed to Shakespeare as the first documented use. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has a short list of words they believe were definitely invented by The Bard and the quotes from their popular plays. For example, “kissing” comes from Lost Love’s Effort. However, a recent count by LitCharts lists 420 words that we can be sure Shakespeare originated in the written language.
But how many words did Shakespeare invent?
Here is a list of 420 words that scholars are sure to have invented from Shakespeare. Some of the highlights are accessible, arch-villain, bloodsucking, characterless, cold-hearted, dauntless, ambiguous, fashionable, generous, howling, informal, leapfrog, misquote, endless, obscene, pageantry, argumentative, reinforcement, savagery, slowness, useful, varied, watchdog , well-read and crazy.
Shakespeare’s invented words include both new words and many compound words. He is also credited with a novel use of words – he used verbs as nouns and nouns as verbs in new ways. In addition to the words, there are also many phrases that Shakespeare invented: “heart of gold,” “the beast with two backs,” and “the green-eyed monster.”
Many words invented by Shakespeare are verbs: discourage, enthrone, gossip, and more. There are also about 30 words on the list that contain the prefix U.N: uneducated, unhelpful, unsolicited, unsullied and many more.
The novel use of words could have been a way for the OED lexicographers to assert that Shakespeare was as important to the story as it was to them personally. The resonance of his pieces extends far beyond their original time, and whatever the true number of words, he certainly expressed himself in new and exciting ways.
The legacy of Shakespeare’s words
There are many reasons why we still use Shakespeare’s invented words. It’s not just that we keep reading Shakespeare because his work is assigned in schools and there are countless adaptations. His words influenced language and language patterns.
As a Shakespeare lover, I find it easy to accept that Shakespeare’s words could cross time and space and revive a nearly extinct alien species of witches. If you’re a Shakespearean nerd, you can read plenty of great modern adaptations, delve into romantic retelling and Sapphic adaptations, and spend the day with the bard.