Shakespeare’s Vocabulary

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Shakespeare (1564-1616) wrote during the Renaissance, a time when the English language was being inundated with new words. Based on a count from the OED, between 10,000 and 12,000 new words were added to English during the 16th century. About half have found a permanent place in the language.

The majority of the new words came from Latin and were used by educated people who wrote books. They jumped quickly from the printed page into everyday speech–presumably by way of such popular entertainments as plays and sermons.

The character of Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night may reflect the eagerness of non-scholars to learn new words:

VIOLA [to Olivia]
Most excellent accomplished lady, the heavens rain odours on you!

SIR ANDREW [aside]
That youth’s a rare courtier: ‘Rain odours;’ well.

My matter hath no voice, to your own most pregnant and vouchsafed ear.

‘Odours,’ ‘pregnant’ and ‘vouchsafed:’ I’ll get ’em all three all ready.

Except for a professional translator like Philemon Holland (1552-1637), Shakespeare used the largest vocabulary of any English writer. Some of the words he used in his plays are documented only a year or two before his use of them: exist, initiate, and jovial, for example.

It’s impossible to say how many words Shakespeare coined, but his works provide the first documentation for words including accommodation, apostrophe, assassination, dexterously, dislocate, frugal, indistinguishable, misanthrope, obscene, pedant, premeditated, reliance, and submerged.

He makes fun of some of the new words going round by putting them in the mouths of pompous clowns like Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost:

The deer was, as you know, sanguis, in blood; ripe
as the pomewater, who now hangeth like a jewel in
the ear of caelo, the sky, the welkin, the heaven;
and anon falleth like a crab on the face of terra,
the soil, the land, the earth.

Truly, Master Holofernes, the epithets are sweetly
varied, like a scholar at the least: but, sir, I
assure ye, it was a buck of the first head.

Most barbarous intimation! yet a kind of
insinuation, as it were, in via, in way, of
explication; facere, as it were, replication, or
rather, ostentare, to show, as it were, his
inclination, after his undressed, unpolished,
uneducated, unpruned, untrained, or rather,
unlettered, or ratherest, unconfirmed fashion, to
insert again my haud credo for a deer.

“Shakespearean” words we still use are agile, allurement, antipathy, catastrophe, critical, demonstrate, dire, emphasis, emulate, extract, hereditary, horrid, impertinent, meditate, modest, pathetic, prodigious, vast, barricade, cavalier, mutiny, and pell-mell.

The meanings of many of these words have changed since the 16th century. For example, we use communicate to mean “exchange information.” When Shakespeare uses it in Comedy of Errors, it still had the Latin meaning of “to share or make common to many.”

In Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo uses expect (from Latin expectare, “to await) in the sense of “to wait for”:

…let’s in and there expect their coming.

The word humorous has been used in English with various senses before coming to mean “comical or funny,” including the meanings damp, capricious, moody, and peevish.

Five of the words that Shakespeare made fun in the speech of Holofernes (intimation, insinuation, explication, replication, and inclination) caught on and survived into modern usage.

Some of the same educators who are willing to drop the study of Shakespeare from the general curriculum probably complain about a decline in vocabulary in today’s high school graduates. There may be no connection, but the fact remains that the close study of even one of Shakespeare’s plays will yield a significant jump in vocabulary for the serious reader.

A History of the English Language, Alfred C. Baugh
The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The Literature Network

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2 thoughts on “Shakespeare’s Vocabulary”

  1. Whilst I don’t doubt the transformative power of the Renaissance or Shakespeare, surely one of the other reasons for the OED registering so many new words during that period is that printing was taking off?

    Many of those “new” words would have been widely used for many years, but didn’t survive in any documents of that period when the OED was first compiled so much later.

  2. Yea, verily. And a personally timely post, given that Iam finally (finally!) reading “Will in the World.”

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