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Shakespeare and 'The Licence of Ink'


Data-crunching Shakespeare reveals that he invented radically fewer words than conventionally supposed. The new total shows that almost two-thirds of Shakespearean ‘coinages’ may not have been his.

In few other capacities has Shakespeare garnered such unrivalled accolades as in his skill as a wordsmith, a fashioner of shiny new words that have since entered the English language and become as familiar as laughable or uneducated, droplet or lack-lustre. ‘Although other writers invented neologisms,’ the Oxford Companion to Shakespeare tells its readers, ‘none did so in such profusion and with such dramatic power and relevance [as Shakespeare]’.[1] The authors of the Essential Shakespeare Handbook concur: ‘Shakespeare introduced more words into English than all other poets of his lifetime combined’.[2] ‘He was an indefatigable innovator,’ one of his many biographers notes, whom contemporary Francis Meres ‘justly praised … as a poet by whom ‘the English tongue is mightily enriched and gorgeously invested in rare ornaments and resplendent habiliments’.[3] Shakespeare has been credited with inventing terms as ordinary as skim-milk, as arcane as empiricutic and as colloquially flavoursome as kickie-wickie, bawcock or skains mate. Praise for his creative genius has seen commentators wrack their own brains for superlatives lavish enough with which to garland ‘the greatest word-maker of them all’, ‘our all-time champion neologiser’, ‘the champion coiner of new words in English’.[4] Alfred Hart, whose pre-digital tally[5] of Shakespeare’s vocabulary was pretty spot-on, marvelled at ‘how deep and apparently inexhaustible were the wells of his memory and invention, and how marvellous his aptitude for word-coining’, while philologist Ernest Weekley asserted that ‘it may be said without fear of exaggeration that his contribution to our phraseology is ten times greater than that of any writer to any language in the history of the world’ – no mean feat.[6]


Despite growing awareness of the extensive cultural and lexicographical biases behind such foregrounding of his linguistic ‘dominion’, it remains commonplace to find Shakespeare lauded as a peerless creator, significantly ahead of the game when it came to teasing language into elegant new formulations.[7] In the same way that the volume of his vocabulary is still widely - and inaccurately - viewed as swamping that of his peers, the construction of Shakespeare as a wordmaker of dizzying range and dexterity remains highly pervasive. It still inhabits a notable, though decreasing, number of scholarly treatments of his works, and remains to a significant degree the ghost in the workings of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), even in the face of a necessarily ponderous revision process. Inevitably the sense of Shakespeare as a colossus bestriding the Early Modern lexical scene is at its most prevalent in student guides, the press and the internet, where lists of ‘words invented by the Bard’ replicate and mutate with infinite variety. ‘Reading his works is like witnessing the birth of language itself,’ gushes one author of popular books on language, while the writer of How Shakespeare Changed Everything enthuses that ‘Shakespeare’s impact on our speech is easily the greatest sign of his power. He has changed the horizons of thought for billions through his words.’[8] It is not difficult to find even more breathless claims on bardolatrous blogs and websites, all subscribing to the notion that a writer’s verbal legacy can be conveniently tabulated via token-counting or coinage-logging. Even anti-Stratfordian conspiracy theorists have seized upon this notion as ‘evidence’ that Shakespeare must have been an erudite university man, with one recent salvo claiming that he ‘coined more new words than any other writer in the history of the English language… It is quite possible that no book, newspaper or magazine published in English in the past century or more fails to contain at least one word coined by Shakespeare, and probably a great many.’[9] Both the extent and perceived originality of Shakespeare’s vocabulary has been widely interpreted as evidence of his intellectual scope, the breadth of his creativity and his superiority over other writers. Bigger is better! Brick-like, each word contributes to the edifice that is Great Shakespeare, his iconicity assured by the very immensity and originality of his linguistic output. The number of words he supposedly invented - and the dubious implication that a writer’s brilliance is related to such a process - serves for many as neat shorthand for Shakespeare’s genius.


In numerical terms, estimates of the number of brand-new words Shakespeare apparently contributed to the English language have varied wildly, though historically most scholars have concurred that ‘the difficulty of arriving at precise figures notwithstanding, Meres was right. Shakespeare significantly enriched the English language with coinages’ and that ‘there is no doubt that Shakespeare was an unusually prolific inventor of new words’.[10] In 1906, Harold Bayley calculated the total number of coinages as a very optimistic 9450 (over half of Shakespeare’s vocabulary!), while a century later Seth Lerer went for a figure of ‘nearly six thousand’ (about a third).[11] Most current estimates hover at the 1700 mark, in keeping with influential studies by Jürgen Schäfer in 1973 and 1980, and related figures from Joseph Shipley, the latter stating that Shakespeare produced ‘one new word in every ten’ that he wrote.[12] In 2004 David Crystal looked at how Shakespeare matched up to other writers. He searched the OED for instances where Shakespeare is the first recorded user of a word, coming up with a total of 2035 (excluding most malapropisms and nonsense words). This, he concluded, was ‘really very impressive’ when compared to the results of similar searches for Spenser, Sidney, Marston  and the King James Bible (only 50 coinage hits for the latter tome).[13] Yet by 2008 Crystal had scaled his estimate of Shakespeare’s coinages down to 1700 out of 2200 OED first usages - one new word in every twenty that he wrote.[14] The actual list of coinages Crystal compiled comes in even lower, at 1392, as it excludes words that can be shown to be on record within a generation of Shakespeare’s usage.[15] In 2016 he told me that he would put the figure at ‘around 1,000’.[16] The OED itself has started to catch up with Crystal, also reining in its first-usage Shakespeare attributions, which currently (September 2018) stand at 1475.


Such pruning is in keeping with research that has debunked the widespread myth of Shakespeare’s vast vocabulary, that allegedly ‘immense word hoard … far in excess of what most mortals could possibly possess’.[17] Separate 2011 studies by Ward E.Y. Elliott & Robert J. Valenza, and by Hugh Craig used different statistical methodologies and applied more than one type of test, but arrived at strikingly similar results: far from being a lexical supremo, Shakespeare did not possess a larger vocabulary than other poets and dramatists. ‘If anything,’ notes Craig, ‘his linguistic profile is exceptional in being unusually close to the norm of his time.’[18] Craig’s analyses place Shakespeare consistently in the middle of groups of up to thirteen dramatists, with like-for-like textual comparisons circumventing the misleading influence of Shakespeare’s greater corpus size and showing his lexicon to be distinctly less inflated than conventionally supposed. In a straightforward word-match with his contemporaries, Elliott and Valenza also found that ‘Shakespeare comes out toward the middle of the pack’.[19] That gargantuan vocabulary so beloved of the Shakespeare industry and so convenient a signpost for greatness in fact looks pretty ordinary, at any rate within a cohort of other talented writers. That group is united by linguistic prowess that sees all members showcasing goodly vocabularies, but not one spiking word totals in a manner suggestive of anomalous quantitative brilliance.  Elliott and Valenza agree that when it comes to Shakespearean coinages a similar effect is probably afoot, speculating that ‘the 2,000+ coined words estimate is probably still too high’, and noting work by Giles Goodland on possible rates of coinage misattribution in the OED.[20]


The OED has long been the go-to resource for anyone interested in Shakespeare’s coinages. The immense linguistic archive is possessed of monolithic status and constitutes a phenomenally valuable cultural and philological resource. Yet like any institution, its architecture creaks under the influence of various biases and design decisions. Its role in spotlighting Shakespeare at the expense of lesser-known writers is reasonably well-established within scholarly communities. He is the second most widely quoted source in the dictionary, coming in only behind the Times for both this accolade and for that of providing the first evidence for a particular sense of a word. When it comes to being the first recorded user of a word, he is trumped only by Chaucer and medieval encyclopaedia translator John Trevisa, both of whom produced very large bodies of work. The OED has put virtually every element of Shakespeare’s vocabulary under the lexicographical microscope with exhaustive thoroughness. Quite apart from his more straightforward words, Shakespeare’s malapropisms, stillborn neologisms, hapax legomena, compositorial errors, non-standard spellings, onomatopoeic words and textual variants are all included as well, being dutifully accorded headword status even if they were deliberately ludicrous manglings of other words or were never used by anyone ever again. There are entries for the malapropism exion (i.e. action), the eighteenth-century editorial emendation capocchia (Italian; Shakespeare has chipochia), the stillborn neologism phantasime, onomatopoeic interjection hewgh (the sound of whistling), likely compositorial misreading mistership (for the pre-existing mistress-ship), and Hamlet quarto variants overteeming and overteemed, to mention but a few. Occasionally a single word spawns more than one entry, doing duty in more than one word class (adjectives yellowing, collied and soiled get first-usage credit as verbs too). Such is the power of Shakespearean authority that his etymologically unidentified coinage sprag was inserted into post-Shakespearean dialect glossaries.


Shakespeare’s words are overwhelmingly more likely to be logged than comparable new usages by others - he gets a coinage credit for the adjective cloud-capped, for example, whereas neither Thomas Nashe nor Josua Sylvester get one for cloud-crowned.[21] That term is absent from the dictionary, as is clergyman Edward Evans’ childefied versus Shaksepeare’s fishify or pamphleteer Samuel Rowlands’ rope-trader, versus Shakespeare’s rope-trick, among others.[22] Minor poet Anthony Copley coined 296 words in his A Fig for Fortune (1596), a rate of about one in fifty. Like Shakespeare, his coinages range from words that remain in use, such as jailbird, outstare or vest, to those that never caught on, like misconsorted, gawdement or the extraordinary cravin-cockadoodle. Whilst many of Copley’s terms didn’t enter mainstream English with any significant force, neither are they nonsense words or malapropisms. Most are constructed using similar methods to Shakespeare, techniques that had become increasingly widespread amongst writers working in the richly productive Early Modern linguistic landscape. Yet 70% of Copley’s first usages do not feature at all in the OED and a further 21% are misattributed to writers (including Shakespeare) who used them subsequently, in some cases two or more centuries later. Where OED coverage of Shakespeare’s supposed coinages is close to 100%, the dictionary’s recording of the inventions of a lesser-known contemporary is a mere 9%.

Copley’s relative cultural invisibility - like that of many other writers - meant that his language simply was not especially available to those compiling A New English Dictionary (the original OED) a century ago and then revising it in the 1980s. Researchers could consult handy concordances for the likes of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible, not to mention a crop of Shakespeare glossaries and the Shakespeare-heavy Dictionary of Samuel Johnson, the latter boasting 8694 quotations from Shakespeare, a massive 20% of all citations Johnson used. Accessing less mainstream texts, especially non-literary sources, was distinctly less feasible and vastly more time-consuming. It was also not an ideological priority. A number of those who worked on the early OED were themselves, like Johnson, Shakespeare scholars. One of them, Charles Talbut Onions, also produced the influential Shakespeare Glossary (1911). The team’s literary credentials informed editor James Murray’s interest in employing ‘typical quotations for the use of words, from all the great English writers’ - that is, in offsetting the English language against suitably worthy foils, Shakespeare foremost among them.[23] Such elucidatory selectivism fuelled the omission of lesser known or valued authors (especially women) and prioritised Early Modern literary texts over non-literary sources from the same period. The dictionary’s early preference for cultural heavyweights was exacerbated by its Reading Programme, which invited the submission of illustrative quotations from volunteers amongst the general public. Inevitably, they tended to read well-known literary texts and lacked the opportunity, motivation or patience to access and plough through obscure theological works or similarly unavailable early material. After all, not many of us want to curl up with a copy of Vertues Teares for the Losse of the Most Christian King Henry or the rivetingly titled An Antilogie or Counterplea to An Apologicall (he should haue said) Apologeticall Epistle published by a Favorite of the Romane Separation, and (as is supposed) one of the Ignatian Faction. Yet they contain pre-Shakespearean usages of snail-paced and counter-caster respectively.[24] Confirmation bias has also played a role in foregrounding Shakespeare. When parallel instances of first usage arise and one recorded user is Shakespeare, the OED has tended to select his usage, rather than that of the alternative writer who is on record as using the word in the same year. Thus exposure is featured by the dictionary as a 1609 Shakespearean first usage, despite appearing in Thomas Heywood’s Troia Britanica, a poem published in the same year and used as a source elsewhere in the dictionary.[25] Even when the dictionary does include two such instances in the same entry, Shakespeare’s is listed first, the Shakespearean date appears on the entry summary, and the word gets tagged only as his in the dictionary’s author-profile lists of first usages: combustious, for example, used by Shakespeare and Richard Hooker in 1593, is not on  the list of Hooker’s first usages, but is on Shakespeare’s. In the case of cake (v.), even a pre-Shakespearean usage gets treated in this way, with nul points for Helkiah Crooke’s 1615 usage versus Shakespeare’s of a1616 (i.e. the 1623 Folio).

It was not until 1980, a hundred years after the dictionary’s inception, that anyone conducted a significant statistical analysis of Shakespeare’s representation in the OED. Jürgen Schäfer compared Shakespeare’s exposure in the dictionary to that of his contemporary writer Thomas Nashe, among others.[26] He showed that in about a third of the OED entries he studied, the earliest word usage the dictionary provided could be antedated in the work of less iconic writers - he found fifty such instances in Nashe alone. Even so, the conclusions of his study have been slow to permeate the perception that Shakespeare was a master wordsmith of extraordinary originality. Despite the fact that Schäfer’s data is now nearly forty years old and well-known in scholarly and lexicographical fields, 60% of instances where he demonstrates that Nashe was using a word prior to Shakespeare have not made it into the dictionary, leaving Shakespeare (or occasionally another post-Nashe writer elevated to top billing by the OED’s re-dating of Shakespeare’s works) as first user.[27] This omission is even more striking given the ready access modern researchers have to digital corpora that Schäfer had to toil away without. Most significant amongst these is Early English Books Online (EEBO), a vast collection of over 130,000 digitised texts dating from 1473-1700 and covering not only literary material but pamphlets, scientific works, ecclesiastical and political texts, histories, ballads and so on. At the touch of a button, one can now send a search algorithm scurrying through this dense linguistic respository to locate multiple instances of an individual word or phrase. Frequency of arch-villain in Early Modern texts? The noun occurs twenty-two times. Conversion of muddy to a verb? 1600. Earliest recorded user of anchovy in an English text? Dramatist and probable spy Anthony Munday in 1582. In each of these examples, the earliest visible record predates OED’s first user: Shakespeare. It is now relatively easy to show that the dictionary’s first-usage dating may be inaccurate through this type of rapid combing of multiple digitised texts. In addition, further online tools available through the excellent Early Modern Print resource, allow users to view keywords in context, and use an n-gram browser that can track changes in orthography, examine usage frequency over time, investigate semantic shift and so on.[28] Yet, despite all this, the OED’s revision of Shakespeare’s lexical profile remains distinctly sluggish, and a significant majority of his supposed first usages within the dictionary are little changed from their first incarnations in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, albeit now pinned with the caveat that they are awaiting updating. No one would deny that revising the OED is a monumental, perhaps a Sisyphean task - current editor Michael Proffitt has termed it ‘never-ending’ - but in its present incarnation it should be treated with a massive dose of caution as a reliable source for Shakespeare coinages.[29]


The dictionary does, however, remain the go-to arbiter for the identification of Shakespearean coinages and indeed the evolution of semantic networks generated by his words, an issue fraught with Early Modern tricksiness. From the footnotes of scholarly editions to journalistic hotlists of wacky Shakespeareanisms the stamp of OED authority is a byword for reliability and accuracy. It is also the justification for the notion that Shakespeare was unique in the frequency and range of his verbal inventions. This is most prominently the case when it comes to popular discussions of Shakespeare’s language - the sort found on blogs, in journalism or in books aimed at the general reader. Holger Schott Syme used EEBO to expose the 46-strong coinage list in Stephen Marche’s How Shakespeare Changed Everything, a particularly eulogistic account of Shakespeare’s influence, as comprising a mere 14 possible neologisms.[30] His experiment is all too easily repeated. In Shakespeare: the World as a Stage, for example, Bill Bryson gives 24 examples from the ‘torrent’ of over two thousand new words in Shakespeare, of which 20 don’t make it past digital checks.[31] Daniel Swift’s celebration of ‘an astonishingly large vocabulary’ asserts that Shakespeare ‘invented more words in the English language than any other person’ and provides 24 examples; 19 of these don’t make it through EEBO (an accompanying quiz features an additional 8/10 antedatable words).[32] The conspiracy pedlars behind Unmasking the Real Shakespeare only score 1/28 in their list.[33] There is no end to the websites listing unreliable ‘coinages’. Mental Floss ran a misleadingly titled 21-word list of ‘Twenty Words We Owe to William Shakespeare’, in which 18 entries can be shown to have been in use by the time Shakespeare employed them.[34] Of the 53-strong list of Shakespearean ‘inventions’ that appears on No Sweat Shakespeare a full 45 are not.[35] ‘Can you recognise the words coined by the Bard?’ asked a HuffPost quiz, inviting its millions of readers to plump for ‘Shakespeare or Fakespeare’ in response to their selection of words.[36] Unfortunately, every single one of those that gets dubbed Shakespearean is on pre-Shakespearean record; the list is in fact 100% Fakespeare. Even reputable academic sources are not immune to overestimation. The Cambridge University Press blog fifteeneightyfour uses the same list as No Sweat Shakespeare. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, no less, says ‘Shakespeare invented over 1700 words’ and includes over 100 of these in an educational resource.[37] Of these 81 are readily antedatable and a further 11 in use within a generation, just over half within 5 years, suggesting that over 90% of its selected terms are unlikely to be Shakespeare’s.

Many of the popular coinage lists draw from a shared pool of words, so that a loop phenomenon emerges whereby the rightness of the material is (wrongly) reinforced by virtue of its ubiquity. Skimmed wholesale from secondary sources or cobbled together from disparate websites, ‘fun facts’ word lists from the likes of BuzzFeed, Schmoop et al. both derive from and nurture the well-entrenched belief that Shakespeare was a copious neologiser. His putative coinages have a collectibility to them, like Star Trek memorabilia or Harry Potter trivia. Merriam-Webster even produced a dictionary of Shakespeare’s alleged linguistic inventions, ‘a must for Bardophiles everywhere!’.[38] They appeal to quick-hit internet culture, microblogging and the Twittersphere, with its appetite for snap-facts and quirky language. Concision exacerbates error; few online sources specify whether Shakespeare coined a word from scratch, converted the grammatical function of an existing term, borrowed a term from another language, or added a new sense to a word already in use. The combination of the Shakespeare brand and a group of words that are either astonishingly ordinary or enjoyably abstruse is enough. Yet if the most widely read, popular accounts of Shakespeare’s ‘insatiable appetite for new words’ are also those that significantly overlap one another in their sample selections, then scanning small datasets like those above only gets us so far.[39] For a more reliable sense of the rate of inflation attendant upon estimates of Shakespearean neologism, we need to look  at the full corpus of supposed Shakespearean coinages, that is, all of the 1475 words the OED flags as first recorded in Shakespeare’s works. Some estimates have already been made of what sort of reduction we might see by applying a wholescale screen of this nature (Giles Goodland suggested up to 60%), but as yet, the data has not been fed in toto through the relevant digital gateways.[40] Doing so should enable us to gain better purchase on precisely how magnified previous coinage counts have been, as well perhaps as casting a further torchbeam into the Early Modern linguistic landscape from which Shakespeare emerged and on which he impacted. David Crystal compiled his OED-derived 1392-word coinage list over ten years ago without cross-checking the data against a non-Shakespearean database. Since his coinage count, considerably more Early Modern texts have been digitised and such a search for antedatings rendered easier and more productive. The profile of first usages within the dictionary has also changed in the last decade, with its revision of some existing entries knocking Shakespeare off the top spot in favour of earlier word-users, whilst elsewhere he is allocated fresh credit through the introduction of brand-new entries (ear-piercing, pin buttock, water thief, for example). What if we observe the same parameters as Crystal - exclude malapropisms and words in use within a generation - and run the current OED quota of alleged first usages through the digital corpora online in 2018?

The figures turn out to be entirely in keeping with the emergent realisation that Shakespeare is responsible for the introduction of dramatically fewer ‘new’ words than hitherto supposed. Trawling EEBO reveals that from OED’s 1475-strong list of words attributed to Shakespeare as first recorded user, 569 can be found in texts published prior to the Shakespearean date OED had tagged them with - just over 10% of these feature in entries that have already undergone revision by the dictionary, presumably because they were revised prior to the further expansion of digitised Early Modern texts. A further 296 words can be found in works published within a generation of Shakespeare’s OED-dated usage, over half of which occur within ten years and just under three-quarters within fifteen years of Shakespeare’s usage. It is worth noting that were we to date words appearing only in the First Folio from their date of publication (1623), rather than, as the OED does, in terms of the date of Shakespeare’s death (a1616), then just over 40% of words currently marked as in use within a generation could be reassigned to the list of terms with a non-Shakespearean antedate. We can go on to exclude 20 malapropisms and 8 other terms whose inclusion is erroneous or significantly dubious.[41] If we accept Crystal’s argument that words in use within a generation were probably already in existence when Shakespeare used them, that means a total of 894 words may no longer qualify for the status of Shakespearean coinages - that’s a reduction of 60.5%. Moreover a number of the words that remain on the list of Shakespearean coinages may arguably merit disinclusion, being likely unique compositorial errors, for example, words that appear in co-authored works (by Shakespeare and Fletcher, for example), minor spelling variants of existing words, or terms attracting philosophically ticklish OED definitions such as ‘a word of doubtful existence’. Such limitations could cut at least a further 10% from the current total of 582 coinages.

A significant number of other words still on the list will certainly also go on to be antedated as yet more digitised texts come on stream or more exhaustive surveys are conducted. Other terms seem very unlikely to have been made up by Shakespeare and probably simply do not exist on record, or have yet to be discovered. Given the prevalence of woodworm in the period and the popularity of engraved rings worn on the thumb, for example, the odds on worm-hole and thumb-ring being active prior to Shakespeare’s use of them seem pretty good. Identifying the first emergence of a word, adaptation of a word or new meaning is reliant on combing the surviving remains of Early Modern texts, a process that prioritises print culture in a manner unreflective of actual usage. The majority of words that are first recorded in print would have been in use already, bobbing and eddying on the daily tides of spoken English. Many of those new terms would have only ever lived out their lives in the air. Words are mouthed and morphed thousands of times in conversation, with frequent improvised alterations serving the conversational turn without ever becoming recorded additions to the language. Shakespeare’s nonce words, hapax and metre-pleasing extemporisations are on record, though, logged for eternity by the twin energies of lexicographical endeavour and the Shakespeare machine. This is a good thing for Shakespeare studies, but sets misleading pre-eminence on his perceived contribution of new words to the language.


In addition to slashing the number of words Shakespeare supposedly invented, the revised coinage list has generated new material about the nature and distribution of its constituent words. The ratio of varieties of word formation, the nature of those derivations, their volume per play and their ebb and flow throughout Shakespeare’s oeuvre may be instructive and is at least interesting. The more streamlined coinage collection confirms Shakespeare as a fan of un- prefixation, for example, but not to the same extent as previously supposed - Crystal’s original list of un- coinages can now be halved.[42] Similarly, it may come as no surprise that the highest number of coinages is to be found in Hamlet, with its peak in the 1604 Quarto, although at a combined Q/F total of 47 this is a far cry from the 480 neologisms former OED chief editor John Simpson exclaimed over in 2016.[43] Troilus and Cressida and King Lear also feature prominently in terms of word invention, with coinages that never entered mainstream usage higher in Lear than any other work. If you factor in the varying lengths of Shakespeare’s works and look at coinage rates per play, Troilus and Cressida is just edged out by The Tempest. Earlier work The Two Gentlemen of Verona shows the lowest rate of this type of linguistic innovation, closely followed by The Comedy of Errors, 1 Henry VI, and Richard III. There are no coinages at all in another early play, 3 Henry VI. If we interpret neologism as a sign of experimentalism (not by any means a reliable assumption), then works from the first quarter of Shakespeare’s career are less confident and flexible in this sense, most containing fewer than ten new words each.[44] When it comes to the lives and afterlives of Shakespeare’s coinages, it turns out that roughly half of the words on the pruned list are tagged by the OED as rare or obsolete.[45] In the case of about a third of those terms, we learn that ‘only one contextual example from a  printed source was available to the [OED] editors’. Obsolete terms are slightly more likely to be nouns, although generally the figures show Shakespeare coining adjectives more frequently.




The data can be crunched and processed in innumerable ways, and will doubtless need reformulating as its constituent components get chipped away through the discovery of more antedates. Suffice it to say, the current revised list of coinages has crashed Shakespeare’s neologisms to 3% of his total (lemmatized) vocabulary - even ‘that ambiguous character Anthony Copley’, we might recall, was on 2%.[46] The fact is that both writers were working during a period of unprecedented linguistic expansion and experimentation during which, according to some estimates, the English wordstock doubled.[47] Between 1590 and 1600 alone, 8944 words are on record as entering the language.[48] With the printing press churning out more and more books and pamphlets, the arrival of more translated texts and an explosion in literary genre and culture, English writers in an increasingly Protestant society were abandoning Latin as the dominant language of printed texts. Driven also by forces of both nationalism and foreign travel and trade, not to mention the humanist push for the dissemination of knowledge, the English language was undergoing uniquely creative proliferation. In this richly productive environment, there was plentiful parallel development of both forms and meanings, and ready slippage between them. While Shakespeare uses annexment in 1604, for example, we find annexion recorded in 1594 and annexation and annexing in 1611, each possessed of the same meaning and two of the same root. Five verbs for depriving a monarch of authority become available during the period: disthronize (first recorded 1583), disthrone (1603), dethrone (1609), unthrone (1611) dethronize (1656). Existing English words, Latin terms, and the vocabularies of European languages were all up for grabs, and all writers, consciously or not, engaged with the process of language change, whether through the creation of showy new formations, the variation of existing terms or the semantic refashioning of words both old and new, routine and specialist. Such processes are testament to the constant flexing and pulsing of Early Modern English, and to the unregulated and increasingly democratic nature of language use, the vernacular released by Protestantism and the printing press, but yet to be bound by the dictionary. Working during the period when the English language was experiencing its fastest ever vocabulary growth, Shakespeare participated in word-creation along with fellow dramatists and poets, as well as scientists, explorers, legislators, merchants and clergymen.[49] At a time when, as one writer acknowledged, there were simply ‘mo[r]e things, then there are words to expresse things by’, the process of borrowing, converting or adapting words was liberating.[50] The language was springy and responsive, offering itself up for invention and reinvention in a manner that could at once be useful, playful, silly and beautiful. From inkhorn obscurities to criminal cant to scientific lexis and beyond, all writers were at it, borrowing, converting or otherwise producing terms as varied as banana, employer, frostbittenillecebrous (alluring), linguist, moustache, pistate (to bake), raccoon, slibber-sauce (medicinal or cosmetic compound), species, testicle, titter-totter (see-saw), virus.

Pinning down an individual innovator of word x or sense y amidst the collective energies of the Early Modern wordscape thus risks being a rather self-defeating and not particularly instructive task. It can be of limited value to try and establish exactly when a word or a meaning came on stream, not least if this is part of an attempt to determine a writer’s brilliance or originality. Shakespeare was not in a linguistic race with his fellow dramatists, rather he was part of the collective warp and weft of language experimentation and development that was so significantly underway in Elizabethan England. Giles Goodland is surely right when he states ‘that the often-posed question, how many words did Shakespeare coin?, is largely false. Like other poets and playwrights of the period, he was simply using language to create effects… it would not have seemed like a good question at the time, to ask if a word was in the language.’[51] It is clear that the number of words Shakespeare is supposed to have invented is radically lower than previously supposed. Yet it is also the case that the longstanding fixation on which and how many words he coined is a pretty unhelpful one. Quite apart from the dubious value of measuring literary worth in numerical terms, the tunnel vision of Shakespeare enthusiasts has tended to examine Shakespeare’s vocabulary in isolation from that of his peers and from the Early Modern linguistic environment. Undoubtedly some of Shakespeare’s coinages hit the mark with peculiar brilliance. Others are dexterous and satisfying in their neatness or economy. Yet most of the language that quivers in the mind is in some ways rather ordinary: ‘life’s but a walking shadow’, ‘let slip the dogs of war’, ‘we are such stuff as dreams are made on’. Like rich hangings in a homely house, the collective gleam of the language defies reduction to its constituent threads. Elliott and Valenza observe that ‘Shakespeare learned early how to strike deep, not with an outsize inventory of long, inkhorn words, but with a par-for-the-course inventory, mostly of plain words, surpassingly well chosen and put together’.[52] James Shapiro concurs: ‘It’s not the words you choose, but the way you use those words. If you asked me what the most famous words in Shakespeare are, they’re commonplace words like ‘To be or not to be’’.[53] Shakespeare’s words resonate not in isolated splendour, but as components of the grammatical and metrical structures they inhabit, and as elements within networks of image and sound. What the shrinking coinage count demonstrates is precisely the unquantifiable nature of Shakespeare’s genius. Just as his perceived vocabulary size turned out to be a misguided measurement of his literary excellence, so the claims of unsurpassed neologistic wizardry belie the real magic of his language.

© H.M. Sénéchal, 2018.


Go to endnotes.





End of Essay.
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