Ryan is an academic coach at Central Connecticut University. He is also a longtime online writer who enjoys writing about literature.
Did Shakespeare Make Up New English Words?
Many estimates floating around the internet claim that Shakespeare invented as many as 20,000 new words—which seems highly improbable. Other estimates, like 1,000 to 2,000 words, may be closer to the truth but still an exaggeration even for the world's most well known writer of English. This page explores why these figures may be more legend than fact given the context in which Shakespeare wrote his masterpieces.
Rich History of the English Language
The history of the English language is replete with periods of, "gradual change and startling innovation" according to the writers of the Norton Anthology of English Literature.
From its beginnings as a Celtic language in what is today Great Britain, it has been heavily influenced by the Latin Language of the Roman Empire, Old Norse from Anglo-Saxon invaders of the Scandinavian region, and French-speaking Norsemen (usually shortened to Norman). The languages of each invader enriched English to such a degree that Old English is totally incomprehensible to modern-day English, in the span of just 500 years. That is, from the end of Old English around 1100 AD to the beginning of Modern English in 1600
Each conquering language introduced new words.
Latin, French, and Old Norse brought with them their words. As the conquers and the native population interacted, words from each language melded, combined, and in some cases completely overtook each other in the vernacular of everyday speech. These influences created many new English words and are responsible for the cognates between English and languages like French and Spanish. For instance, the word "impossible" is identical in all three languages.
But this is not the only way that words can enter a language.
Words do not always enter a language because of the outside influence of other languages. Sometimes they are created out of necessity. When the internet began its rise to power, there were no words to describe many of the actions performed and ideas that needed to be expressed in this new medium. No one previously had the ability to tweet messages with emoticons to their followers on Twitter because Twitter didn't exist yet. The words "tweet" and "emoticon" were invented because the ideas which encapsulate the words were now needed to convey such ideas.
This happens in academia as well. When evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins developed his theory for the spread of ideas he needed to coin the word meme, which denotes a unit of information much like a gene is a unit of information in DNA, because the overarching idea of the theory had never before been proposed.
Sometimes words are coined as a shorthand for ideas already known. Artists, musicians, writers, and those of other creative pursuits had for countless years described a sense of "being in the zone" when performing their creative pursuits, which includes a sense of focus that blocks out all outside thoughts and emotions. In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed the word "flow" to describe this moment already known by so many. The word stuck and has been in common usage ever since.
Shakespeare and the English Language
Much like Richard Dawkins and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, people believe that William Shakespeare also created English words. Some lovers of Shakespeare insist that as many as 20,000 new words can be credited to him. That is almost certainly an hyperbole that somehow transformed into legend.
Many words in English are first seen in Shakespeare's writings.
There are a number of words that make their first appearance in Shakespeare's plays. Typically, this is the evidence given to attribute the words to him. Others also suggest that his ability to use language make him the most likely source of novel words "[He] was Singularly alert to the fantastic vitality of the English language...[with an] uncanny ability to absorb terms from a wide range of pursuits," write the authors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Critics are always quick to point out that Shakespeare had the wherewithal to invent words as he saw fit. His ability to delve into the human condition was an outlier among his peers. With this ability came the need to describe emotions that had since not been written about. And because of this, words like "grovel," "fashionable," and "sanctimonious" (words that have a strong possibility of being from Shakespeare himself) first appear in plays written by him.
This does not necessarily mean that Shakespeare coined the words.
It may be fallacious to say that because words are first seen in Shakespeare's writings he must be the originator. Jennifer Vernon of the National Geographic News writes that it is very difficult to trace new words back to their original source. Words are typically spoken before they are written. Humans have an innate knack for naturally shifting word pronunciations, absorbing terms from foreign languages, and combining or melding them to suit their needs. The entirety of Historical Linguistics is based on this principle. Words are routinely traced throughout the centuries to see how they change and where they come from. This explains the similarities of English to other languages described above.
Often a word can be attributed to Shakespeare's time period because that is when they were first used in writing (he was born in 1564 and died in 1616). But most likely, the word was in use for some time before it is seen in the writings of Shakespeare. The fact that the word first appears there does not necessarily mean that he made it up himself, but rather, he could have borrowed it from his peers or from conversations he had with others.
(Very) Short List of Words First Used by Shakespeare
Shakespeare's time period was transformational for the English language.
The 16th century was a transformational time for the culture of England, and consequently, the language as well. The rise of Humanism brought a new vigor to the introspection of human emotions. Plays written in this time period focused on ideas central to the human condition. This writer believes that Humanism's influence on thought created previously unknown memes in the minds of its followers, like Shakespeare (there is also evidence that Shakespeare was an atheist). New thoughts demanded new words to describe them. So writers likely invented words to fill this need. And not surprisingly, many of the words we first see from this time period are words to describe human qualities.
Shakespeare didn't write in a vacuum.
"Just because [Shakespeare] was a regular phrase-coining machine doesn't mean he should hog the credit when the facts are against him", writes Michael Macrone in Brush Up Your Shakespeare.
There is good evidence that Shakespeare was deeply involved in the Humanist movement. He likely surrounded himself with like-minded peers and shared ideas with them. furthermore, ideas were being shared by countless people in innumerable places in England. This jump start in human thought undoubtedly sped up word creation too. Because no writer writes in a vacuum, Shakespeare probably absorbed the ideas for his plays, which are fantastic examples of humanist thought, and the words that developed alongside these ideas.
Sometimes, we just want to attribute words to him.
We love Shakespeare. He's quite possibly the greatest writer the English language has ever known. So People often fall into the trap of wanting to attribute something to Shakespeare just because he is so great. It is like a credential that makes the words appear more prophetic or worthy of attention, much in the same way that a doctor's words are given much more pause than those of the average person. A quick check of some sites that claim to compile particular words Shakespeare invented revealed that three of the four sites contained words that had an etymology (word history) that predated Shakespeare (using Dictionary.com).
But what about phrases that Shakespeare supposedly coined?
Phrases attributed to Shakespeare are subject to the same problems as words that are credited to him. But in many ways, the information is larger and sometimes more misleading. This is mostly because Shakespeare's ability with words was unrivaled by anyone before or since him. His ability to develop metaphors, allusions, and play with words and word meanings is much of the reason that he is a sort of English canon with devoted followers who spend their lives reading and rereading the pages of Othello or the famous storm scene in King Lear.
The Bottom Line
Shakespeare is a great writer who was unrivaled in his ability to use words. But this unmatched ability is often responsible for an over generalization of the resulting language changes in England during the Humanist revolution. For as many truths about Shakespeare's effect on the English language there are an equal number of falsehoods. Often, it is because Shakespeare is so important to the English speaker, and is studied so exhaustively, that the reality of his contribution to the English language has been smeared with so much legend.
Ake Brandt on February 19, 2018:
Answer to: Of course, he didn't invent those words.
Well, except Italian proverbs translated into English (something about a woman who marries her ?garderobie?, which in Italian means a woman who marries under her state), Italian words such as traject, word from hawking – a jargong that ordinary people were forbidden to know, i.e. haggard, word in Catalan – Caliban, that means "outcast", and all other Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Hebrew … words that he adapted into English use.
So in other words, the groundlings must have been very well educated, university level, at least.
And Shakespeare? His education must have been way beyond and above university level, plus well-educated lawyer, plus doctor, plus military and navel officer, plus a seasoned politician u. s. w. … i.e. he must have had a very deep mine to create word from and use them in an unusual ways and places, e.g.
law: … and summers LEASE hath all too short a date:…
nautical: … nature's changing COURSE UNTRIMM'D …
That somehow exclude the man from Stratford, but you can't have it both way: Either he had a vocabulary out of the ordinary from which he created new words; or he hadn't, but then he couldn't have written the plays.
philmaguire from Jersey, Iles de la Manche on February 27, 2014:
Of course, he didn't invent those words. What people forget is that Shakespeare was a pop playwright. If he were alive today, he would be writing soap operas and romcoms. He only got paid if there were backsides on seats. So he isn't about to put in a whole bunch of gibberish and alienate his audience.
What is most likely is that his words were those used by "common folk" which is why no one else was using them and recording them. They were the cockney slang or rap talk of their day and Shakespeare used them because it made the audience feel at home and get his jokes.
Also, you have to remember that the works of Shakespeare weren't recorded until after his death so we have no clear chain of connection with him in the first place.
Thank you for taking the time to research and write this article. It was very thorough
Ryan Buda (author) from Windsor, Connecticut on September 16, 2012:
You're welcome! You gotta love Shakespeare for what he did for the English language, but he has become quite the legend. It caused a lot of myth about what words and phrase really were his. It's a shame that the evidence can't tell us more. Thanks for the comment!
Dan Barfield from Gloucestershire, England, UK on September 16, 2012:
Very interesting - voted up. I have to admit that I didn't even question the poster of my English teacher's wall when at school. It had this great long list of phrases and words attributed to Shakespeare - thousands of them. He is so glorified for his great works, that it is just commonly accepted that he single handedly developed the language on his own. I really want to read into this subject more now, thank you.
Ryan Buda (author) from Windsor, Connecticut on August 22, 2012:
Ya, there were so many other angles that I could have added to this hub. Perhaps next time I delve deeper into the word histories and the way that Shakespeare used them. He was very creative in the way he combined word, prefixes, and suffixes in the language to suit his needs.
I just wish there wasn't so much misinformation regarded the words he invented and the phrases he coined.
Kiera G from Australia on August 21, 2012:
Great hub. I think its interesting that while Shakespeare invented a whole lot of new words, he also just added prefixes and endings that are common to the English language, just not to that particular word, giving it a new meaning.