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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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.
“…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.”
“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).”
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.”
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.