William Shakespeare (1564-1616), considered the greatest writer in the English language, used more than 24,000 words in his writings, more than any other author. Of those words, more than 1,700 were first used by him, as far we can tell. He may have made up many of them himself.
How can you possibly understand someone who keeps making up new words? Because Shakespeare made up his new words from old, familiar words: nouns into verbs, verbs into adverbs, adverbs into nouns. He added new prefixes and suffixes to existing words. For example, gloom was already a noun that meant ‘darkness’ and even a verb, but Shakespeare turned it into a adjective, as in ‘the ruthless, vast and gloomy woods’ in Titus Andronicus.
Renaissance writers, trying to express classical ideas for the first time in English, often borrowed words from the classical languages of Greek and Latin, and William Shakespeare was no exception. Also, in Shakespeare’s day, the rules of English grammar were not yet formalized, so he was freer to invent his own.
After more than 400 years of changes in the English language, Shakespeare is still beloved and still understood. Because of his knowledge of essential language, we still know what the Princess means in Loves Labours Lost when she says (archaically) “Prepare; I will away tonight,” even though she leaves out the verb “go.”
Here are 30 of the words invented by William Shakespeare, as compiled by my colleague Maeve in her article Shakespeare’s Vocabulary, each one demonstrated in a sentence from one of his plays:
- accommodation: adjustment, adaptation, compromise
Thou art not noble; For all the accommodations that thou bear’st Are nursed by baseness. – Measure for Measure
- agile: able to move quickly or easily
His agile arm beats down their fatal points. – Romeo and Juliet
- allurement: Attractiveness, appeal, enticement.
That is an advertisement to a proper maid in Florence, one Diana, to take heed of the allurement of one Count Rousillon – All’s Well That Ends Well
- antipathy: dislike, hatred
No contraries hold more antipathy Than I and such a knave. – King Lear
catastrophe: disaster, the dramatic event that begins the resolution of the story
And pat! he comes, like the catastrophe of the old comedy. – King Lear
- critical: inclined to criticize, extremely important
O gentle lady, do not put me to’t; For I am nothing, if not critical. – Othello
demonstrate: show, display, present
And this may help to thicken other proofs That do demonstrate thinly. – Othello
- dexterously: skillfully, with precision.
Dexterously, good madonna. – Twelfth Night
- dire: dreadful, dismal, portentous
Hapless Aegeon, whom the fates have mark’d To bear the extremity of dire mishap! –
Comedy of Errors
- dislocate: to put out of place
They are apt enough to dislocate and tear Thy flesh and bones. – King Lear
- emphasis: Special weight, attention, forcefulness or prominence given to something
Be choked with such another emphasis! Say, the brave Antony. – Antony and Cleopatra
- eyeballs: the eyes
‘Tis not your inky brows, your black silk hair, Your bugle eyeballs, nor your cheek of cream, – As You Like It
- emulate: imitate, copy
I see how thine eye would emulate the diamond: – Merry Wives of Windsor
- exist: to be, to have reality
By all the operation of the orbs From whom we do exist and cease to be; –
- extract: draw out, remove, withdraw,
May it be possible, that foreign hire Could out of thee extract one spark of evil That might annoy my finger? – Henry V
- frugal: thrifty, cheap, economical
I was then frugal of my mirth: Heaven forgive me! – Merry Wives of Windsor
- hereditary: inherited, passed on from parents
Hereditary, rather than purchased; what he cannot change, than what he chooses. –
Antony and Cleopatra
- horrid: terrible, horrible
He would drown the stage with tears And cleave the general ear with horrid speech; – Hamlet
- impertinent: insolent, ill-mannered, irrelevant
In very brief, the suit is impertinent to myself, – Tempest
- jovial: jolly, cheerful, merry
Be bright and jovial among your guests to-night. – Macbeth
- meditate: think, contemplate, study
I will meditate the while upon some horrid message for a challenge. – Twelfth Night
- modest: moderate, slight, humble,
Do not cry havoc, where you should but hunt With modest warrant. Coriolanus
- mutiny: tumult, strife, rebellion against a legal authority, especially at sea
Good friends, sweet friends, let me not stir you up To such a sudden flood of mutiny. – Julius Caesar
- obscene: indecent, offensive, repulsive
O, forfend it, God, That in a Christian climate souls refined Should show so heinous, black, obscene a deed! – Richard II
- pedant: a schoolmaster, someone who shows off his knowledge by using big words
Most villanously; like a pedant that keeps a school i’ the church. – Twelfth Night
- pell-mell: hasty, uncontrolled, confused
Advance your standards, and upon them, lords; Pell-mell, down with them! – Love’s Labour’s Lost
- premeditated: deliberate, planned in advance
Some peradventure have on them the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder; – Henry V
reliance: trust, dependence
And my reliances on his fracted dates Have smit my credit: – Timon of Athens
submerged: underwater, below the surface, hidden
So half my Egypt were submerged and made A cistern for scaled snakes! –
Antony and Cleopatra
- vast: Very large or wide
The sun’s a thief, and with his great attraction Robs the vast sea: – Timon of Athens
Could we make up new words too, and still be understood? In imitation of Shakespeare, I tried making up a couple – do you understand me?
The anticlean toddler boy.
Though you lamb yourself after your violence, quoth Sherlock, yet before judge and jury I will unlamb you.
Shakespeare invented many words that might surprise you. In Shakespeare’s day, friend was already a noun, but Shakespeare turned it into a verb. Befriend is a more standard verb that expresses the same thing, but a newly-coined word has extra power and surprise – but unless you do it discreetly, you’ll sound like e e cummings or James Joyce. Shakespeare also used the word unfriended, centuries before Mark Zuckerberg. The word swagger, popular with rap musicians, was first used in Henry V and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, though Shakespeare didn’t invent the word swag.