How Many Words Did Shakespeare Invent?

William Shakespeare wrote some of the most iconic plays and poetry in the history of Western literature. He also managed to introduce a large number of new words and phrases into the English language. At the time he began working, in the 1580’s, Early Modern English differed from the English that we use today. The vocabulary of that period was rapidly expanding, and many writers and philosophers of the time coined new words and expressions. They created vocabulary by reimagining foreign phrases, adding new prefixes or suffixes to existing words, or combining parts of words from foreign languages. Of course, history has remembered many of the unusual neologisms that achieved popularity during that time.

In order to answer the question—How many words did Shakespeare invent?—we’ll first need to define our terms. Should we count words invented and then forgotten? Within his body of work, at least 40 plays and 154 sonnets, he created a number of terms like “mered,” “rigol,” and “relume,” words that never quite gained traction. On the other hand, some of his inventions, such as “friended” and “swagger,” have never been more popular than they are today!

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Why Do We Credit Shakespeare?

The Guardian quotes Shakespeare lecturer Dr. David McInnis: “The OED [Oxford English Dictionary], which saw its original volumes published between 1884 and 1928, includes more than 33,000 Shakespeare quotations…with around 1,500 of those ‘the first evidence of a word’s existence in English’, and around 7,500 ‘the first evidence of a particular usage of meaning’.” Although McInnis believes these numbers are overstated thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary’s bias towards traditional literature, it’s undeniable that Shakespeare recorded a bloom of new vocabulary. 

The OED has undertaken research of its own, posing the question, “Did the great authors such as Shakespeare and Chaucer really invent as many new words as they are given credit for, or does new information now show that many of these words have earlier, popular, origins?” Whether he invented or repurposed novel language, Shakespeare wrote during a time period that saw the introduction of a great number of words and phrases into the English lexicon. Below, we’ve included some of the unique words and phrases often attributed to “The Bard of Avon,” their original context within Shakespeare’s work, and their modern definitions. 

“Addiction” – Othello

“…Every man put himself into triumph; 
some to dance, some to make bonfires, each man to 
what sport and revels his addiction leads him: for, 
besides these beneficial news, it is the celebration of 
his nuptial.”

According to Merriam-Webster,  today “addiction” is defined as, “A compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence : the state of being addicted.”

“A heart of gold” – Henry V

“The King’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold
A lad of life, an imp of Fame, 
Of parents good, of fist most valiant.” 

According to Merriam-Webster, today “heart of gold” means, “A kind and generous disposition.”

“All of a sudden” – The Taming of the Shrew

“I pray, sir, tell me, is it possible
That love should of a sudden take such hold?”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “all of a sudden” means, “Sooner than was expected : at once.”

“Arch-villain” – Timon of Athens

“You that way and you this, but two in company;
Each man apart, all single and alone,
Yet an arch-villain keeps him company.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today archvillain is defined as, “A principal or extreme villain.”

“Articulate” – Henry IV, Part I

“These things, indeed, you have articulate,
Proclaim’d at market-crosses, read in churches…”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “articulate” is defined as, “Expressing oneself readily, clearly, and effectively.”

“A sorry sight” – Macbeth

“This is a sorry sight.”

According to The Free Dictionary, today “a sorry sight” means, “Someone or something that has a piteous, woeful, or wretched appearance.”

“Assassination” – Macbeth

“If th’ assassination
Could trammel up the consequence and catch
With his surcease success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all here…”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “assassination” is defined as, “Murder by sudden or secret attack often for political reasons : the act or an instance of assassinating someone (such as a prominent political leader).”

“A wild-goose chase” – Romeo and Juliet

“Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I
am done, for thou hast more of the wild goose in
one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “a wild-goose chase” means, “A complicated or lengthy and usually fruitless pursuit or search.”

“Bedazzled” – The Taming of the Shrew

“Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes,
That have been so bedazzled with the sun
That everything I look on blurs and softens…”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “bedazzled” is defined as, “To confuse by a strong light.”

“Bloodstained” – Titus Andronicus

“Why dost not comfort me and help me out
From this unhallowed and bloodstainèd hole?”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “bloodstained” is defined as, “Involved with slaughter.”

“Break the ice” – The Taming of the Shrew

“It will be a cold house, Curtis, because our mistress
is a block of ice, and if thou layest not a fire her chill
will freeze us all! and therefore fire: do thy duty and
leave gossip till I thaw!”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “break the ice” means, “To get through the first difficulties in starting a conversation or discussion.”

“Cadent” – King Lear

“Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks…”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “cadent” is defined as, “Having rhythmic cadence.”

“Catch a cold” – Cymbeline

“We will have these things set down by lawful counsel,
and straight away for Britain, lest the bargain
should catch cold and starve.”

According to The Free Dictionary, today “catch a cold” means, “To become ill with the common cold.”

“Come what may” – Macbeth

Come what come may,
Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.”

According to The Free Dictionary, today “come what may” means, “No matter what happens.”

“Dead as a doornail” – Henry IV, Part II

Falstaff. What, is the old king dead?
Pistol. As nail in door. The things I speak are just.

According to Merriam-Webster, today “dead as a doornail” is an idiom, “—Used to stress that someone or something is dead.”

“Devil incarnate” – Titus Andronicus

“O worthy Goth, this is the incarnate devil
That robbed Andronicus of his good hand…”

According to The Free Dictionary, today “devil incarnate” is defined as, “Someone who is utterly despicable or evil, i.e., the devil in human form.”

“Dishearten” – Henry V

“…No man should possesse him with any appearance of feare; 
least hee, by shewing it, should dis-hearten his Army”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “dishearten” is defined as, “To cause to lose hope, enthusiasm, or courage : to cause to lose spirit or morale.”

“Eaten out of house and home” – Henry IV, Part II

“He hath eaten me out of house and home; he hath put all
substance into that fat belly of his.”

According to The Free Dictionary, today “eaten out of house and home” means, “To eat everything that someone has in the house.”

“Epileptic” – King Lear

“A plague upon your epileptic visage!”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “epileptic” is defined as, “Relating to, affected with, or having the characteristics of epilepsy.”

“Eventful” – As You Like It

“Last scene of all, 
That ends this strange eventful history…”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “eventful” is defined as “momentous.” 

“Fancy-free” – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“But I might see young Cupid’s fiery shaft
Quenched in the chaste beams of the wat’ry moon,
And the imperial vot’ress passèd on
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “fancy free” is defined as, “Free from amorous attachment or engagement.”

“Fashionable” – Troilus and Cressida
“…For Time is like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by th’ hand
And, with his arms outstretched as he would fly,
Grasps in the comer.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “fashionable” is defined as, “Conforming to the custom, fashion, or established mode.”

“Flesh and blood” – Hamlet

“But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “flesh and blood” means, “Near kindred —used chiefly in the phrase one’s own flesh and blood.”

“Foregone conclusion” – Othello

“But this denoted a foregone conclusion: ’Tis a shrewd doubt, though it be but a dream.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “foregone conclusion” is defined as, “A conclusion that has preceded argument or examination.”

“Friended” – Measure for Measure

“When vice makes mercy, mercy’s so extended
That for the fault’s love is th’ offender friended.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “friended” is defined as, “To include (someone) in a list of designated friends on a person’s social networking site.” 

“Full circle” – King Lear

“The wheel is come full circle; I am here.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “full circle” means, “Through a series of developments that lead back to the original source, position, or situation or to a complete reversal of the original position —usually used in the phrase come full circle.”

“Give the devil his due” – Henry IV, Part I

“Sir John stands to his word, the devil shall have
his bargain; for he was never yet a breaker of
proverbs: he will give the devil his due.”

According to The Free Dictionary, today “give the devil his due” means, “To acknowledge the good in someone who is otherwise regarded unfavorably.”

“Good riddance” – The Merchant of Venice

“A gentle riddance! Draw the curtains, go.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “good riddance” is an idiom, “—Used to say that one is glad that someone is leaving or that something has gone.”

“Hot-blooded” – King Lear

“Why the hot-blooded France, that dowerless took
Our youngest born…”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “hot-blooded” is defined as, “Easily excited : passionate.” 

“Laughable” – The Merchant of Venice

“…They’ll not show their teeth in way of smile
Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “laughable” is defined as, “Of a kind to provoke laughter or sometimes derision : amusingly ridiculous.”

“Lie low” – Much Ado About Nothing

“If he could right himself with quarrelling,
Some of us would lie low.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “lie low” means, “To bide one’s time : remain secretly ready for action.”

“Lonely” – Coriolanus

“…Like to a lonely dragon that his fen
Makes feared and talked of more than seen…”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “lonely” is defined as, “Being without company : lone.”

“Manager” – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“Where is our usual manager of mirth?”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “manager” is defined as, “A person who conducts business or household affairs.”

“Negotiate” – Much Ado About Nothing

“Let every eye negotiate for itself
And trust no agent, for beauty is a witch…”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “negotiate” is defined as, “To confer with another so as to arrive at the settlement of some matter.”

“Neither here nor there” – Othello

“’Tis neither here nor there

According to The Free Dictionary, today “neither here nor there” means, “Irrelevant or unimportant; having no bearing upon the current situation.”

“Newfangled” – Love’s Labour’s Lost

“At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled shows,
But like of each thing that in season grows.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “newfangled” is defined as, “Of the newest style or kind.”

“Sleep a wink” – Cymbeline

“O gracious lady,
Since I received command to do this business
I have not slept one wink.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “sleep a wink” is defined as, “To sleep for even a very brief time —used in negative statements.”

“Obscene” – Love’s Labour’s Lost

“…I did encounter that
obscene and most prepost’rous event that draweth
from my snow-white pen the ebon-colored ink, 
which here thou viewest, beholdest, surveyest, or seest.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “obscene” is defined as, “Disgusting to the senses : repulsive.”

“One fell swoop” – Macbeth

“What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “in/at one fell swoop” is defined as, “With a single, quick action or effort.”

“Puking” – As You Like It

“At first the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today to “puke” means to “vomit.” 

“Rant” – Hamlet

“Nay, an thou ’lt mouth,
I’ll rant as well as thou.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “rant” is defined as, “To talk in a noisy, excited, or declamatory manner.”

“Salad days” – Antony and Cleopatra

“My salad days,
When I was green in judgment, cold in blood…”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “salad days” mean, “Time of youthful inexperience or indiscretion.”

“Scuffle” – Antony and Cleopatra

“His captain’s heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast…”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “scuffle” is defined as, “To struggle at close quarters with disorder and confusion.”

“Send packing” – Henry IV, Part I

“‘Faith, and I’ll send him packing.”

According to Dictionary.com, today “send packing” means, “Send someone about his or her business.”

“Swagger” – Henry V

“And’t please your Majesty, a Rascall that swagger’d with me last night…”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “swagger” is defined as, “To conduct oneself in an arrogant or superciliously pompous manner, especially : to walk with an air of overbearing self-confidence.”

“Tang” -The Tempest

For she had a tongue with a tang,
Would cry to a sailor, “Go hang!”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “tang” is defined as, “A sharp distinctive often lingering flavor.”

“There’s method in my madness” – Hamlet

“Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “method to one’s madness” means, “Good reasons for one’s actions even though they may seem foolish or strange.”

“The world is someone’s oyster” – The Merry Wives of Windsor

“Why, then the world’s mine oyster,
Which I with sword will open.”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “the world is someone’s oyster” means, “Someone’s life is good and he or she has the ability to do whatever he or she wants to do. “

“Too much of a good thing” – As You Like It

“Why then, can one desire too much of a good thing?” 

According to Dictionary.com, today “too much of a good thing” means, “Too large an amount of a beneficial or useful thing or activity can be harmful or excessive.”

“Uncomfortable” – Romeo and Juliet

Uncomfortable time, why cam’st thou now
To murder, murder our solemnity?”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “uncomfortable” is defined as, “Causing discomfort or annoyance.”

“Unreal” – Macbeth

“Hence, horrible shadow! Unreal mock’ry, hence!”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “unreal” is defined as, “Lacking in reality, substance, or genuineness.”

“Vanish into thin air” – Othello

“Then put up your pipes in your bag, for I’ll away: go; vanish into air; away!”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “vanish into thin air” is defined as, “To disappear completely in a way that is mysterious.”

“What’s done is done” – Macbeth

“Things without all remedy
Should be without regard. What’s done is done.”

According to Dictionary.com, today “what’s done is done” means, “There is no changing something; it’s finished or final.”

“With bated breath” – The Merchant of Venice

“Or Shall I bend low, and in a bondman’s key,
With bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness,
Say this…”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “with bated breath” means, “In a nervous and excited state anticipating what will happen.”

“Zany” – Love’s Labour’s Lost

“Some carry-tale, some please-man, some slight (zany,)
Some mumble-news, some trencher-knight, some Dick…”

According to Merriam-Webster, today “zany” is defined as, “A slavish follower : toady.”

Sources:

  1. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/william-shakespeare-400th-anniversary-60-everyday-words-and-phrases-you-never-knew-came-from-the-a6975111.html
  2. http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/wordscoined.html
  3. http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/wordscoined.html
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/06/shakespeare-language-not-original-david-mcinnis-claim-oed-bias
  5. https://public.oed.com/history/rewriting-the-oed/