One of the many pieces of popular lore attributed to Shakespeare (and there are a lot) is that he invented up to 1,700 of the words we use today. But can he really claim all of those words, or is something else going on here?
In the comments of this post on words with fascinating backstories, the debate kicked off, with some commenters saying that Shakespeare was indeed responsible for 1,700 words — including ones like “assassination” “buzzer” “puking” “frugal” and “zany”— while others responded that many of those words actually pre-dated the playwright, by sometimes up to centuries.
So, what’s going on here?
If you go look up the Oxford English Dictionary definitions for these words, they do indeed attribute a number of these words to Shakespeare. The first attribution of “frugal”, for instance, is listed as the play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, while “buzzer’s” first citation comes from Hamlet. Other words, however, that are often popularly attributed to Shakespeare — like “assassination” or “zany” — do have Shakespeare listed as one early citation in the OED, but not as the very earliest. So, why does Shakespeare have so many words attributed to him that may or may not have originated with him?
It turns out that, to really see what’s going on here, we have to take a look at how dictionaries are made, both today and in the past.
When the first Oxford English Dictionary came out, the compilation was essentially done by hand which, of course, meant that the pool they were drawing early citations from was necessarily smaller. But, since lexicographers were typically intimately familiar with the works of Shakespeare, his works almost always made it into the mix, resulting in him getting first attribution on hundreds and hundreds of words.
But, as search technologies got both better and more common, lesser known works and authors started to make it in as well — and when they did, they sometimes displaced Shakespeare as the first recorded user. Katherine Martin of the Oxford University Press explained to PRI how one of the words he was almost always given credit for — “puke” — eventually lost its Shakespeare designation (to the 1465 text Manners and Househ. Expenses Eng) in the OED after a computer analysis. That same process happened several times over to cut down the number of words that we still think of as coined by Shakespeare.
Of course, whether or not he was always the first to write down a new word, he’s still responsible for popularizing many of the words he’s given credit for (which even include “wormhole”), or even just giving us a new spin on how to use an existing word.
Image: The “Flower Portrait” of William Shakespeare, originally thought to be 15th century, but eventually revealed to be a 19th century forgery