Shakespeare: A Wordsmith For All Seasons

Shakespeare’s unmatched linguistic prowess allowed him to coin and popularize a staggering number of words. It’s estimated that he introduced around 1,700 words to the English language—at least, his plays are the first recorded use of these words. Perhaps the greatest aspect of his literary legacy is his penchant for coining and popularizing numerous words that have seamlessly woven themselves into our everyday speech. Shakespeare’s invented words are incredibly diverse, and his willingness to manipulate language to fit his poetic needs was nothing short of revolutionary.

Brevity and Impact.
Shakespeare’s neologisms, or newly coined words, were often introduced to capture complex emotions, ideas, or concepts that previously lacked succinct expression. Take, for instance, the word “swagger,” derived from the Old English word “swagian,” which means “to sway.” Shakespeare transformed it into a verb laden with attitude, describing a bold, confident strut that reflects a certain arrogance.

Verbs, Nouns, and Everything In Between.
Shakespeare’s linguistic innovations were not restricted to one part of speech. From nouns and verbs to adjectives and adverbs, his linguistic innovation knew no bounds. He is credited with the first use of words like “gloomy,” “luggage,” “obscene,” and “frugal.” Moreover, he seamlessly transformed nouns into verbs and vice versa. Consider the word “gossip,” originally a noun referring to idle chatter between friends. Shakespeare ingeniously turned it into a verb, which we use today.

Sources Be Damned.
Shakespeare drew inspiration from a wide range of sources, and wasn’t afraid to borrow from other languages, adapting words to suit the needs of his works. The word “amiable,” for example, is derived from the Latin word “amabilis,” meaning lovable or friendly. Shakespeare adapted it to “amiable,” which now encapsulates a charming and pleasant demeanor.

Expressing Emotion: A Linguistic Kaleidoscope.
Shakespeare’s command over language allowed him to convey emotions with exquisite precision. The word “eyeball,” originally meaning the ball of the eye, took on metaphorical significance through his usage. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he employs the word to convey the intensity of a gaze, forever altering how we describe the act of looking deeply into someone’s eyes.

Commonplace to Extraordinary.
Shakespeare’s skill lay in taking mundane words and giving them new life and layers of meaning. He turned the word “bandit,” derived from the Italian “bandito,” into a synonym for outlaw or criminal. Similarly, the word “dwindle” was derived from the Old English “dwindan,” but it was Shakespeare’s use that popularized its current meaning of diminishing or shrinking.

Unfixing Earthbound Roots.
Shakespeare often crafted new words by altering existing ones or by adding prefixes and suffixes to root words. This allowed him to capture emotions, actions, and concepts in complex ways. For instance, to coin the word “dishearten,” he combined the word “hearten” with the prefix “dis-” to create a term that vividly conveys the idea of being overwhelmed and emotionally spent. One scholar posits that he completely invented the prefix “un-,” meaning the words “unfortunate,” “unpleasant,” and “unhandsome” exist thanks to Shakespeare.

Time And Mortal Custom.
One of the remarkable aspects of Shakespeare’s word inventions is their timelessness. These words weren’t mere fads; they became integral components of the language due to their ability to accurately describe universal human experiences. Whether it’s the playful “swagger,” the introspective “lonely,” the fiery passion of “buzzer,” or the mischievous disdain of “puking,” Shakespeare’s contributions to our lexicon continue to astonish. His words have not only survived but have thrived, influencing subsequent generations of writers, poets, and speakers. The enduring power of his language can be seen in contemporary literature, film, and even everyday conversations. When we use words like “anchored,” “exposure,” “addiction,” or “hint,” we are unknowingly paying homage to Shakespeare’s linguistic ingenuity.

William Shakespeare’s legacy is a tapestry woven from the threads of his extraordinary words and phrases. As we navigate the intricate labyrinth of English vocabulary, take a moment to appreciate the linguistic gifts Shakespeare bestowed upon us. With every word we utter, we carry forward the enduring legacy of the playwright who not only entertained the world but also shaped the very fabric of our language.

Here are a handful of words invented or repurposed by Shakespeare:

Lonely: While “lonely” existed in Middle English, it was Shakespeare who provided it with the emotional weight we attribute to it today. He used it in Coriolanus (circa 1607) to convey a sense of desolation and isolation.

Swagger: The word “swagger” existed in English before Shakespeare, but he gave it the specific connotation of arrogant or pompous behavior in his play Henry V (1599).

Obscene: Shakespeare’s plays often delved into the depths of human emotions, and he wasn’t shy about coining words to match. “Obscene,” derived from the Latin “obscenus,” made its debut in Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598) to describe lewd or indecent behavior.

Fashionable: In Troilus and Cressida (1602), Shakespeare crafted “fashionable” to describe something characterized by the current trends or styles. Little did he know that this term would be forever relevant in the world of design and aesthetics.

Manager: In A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595), Shakespeare used “manager” to refer to someone who arranges or directs something, like a play. This term has since become commonplace in various professional contexts.

Dwindle: The verb “dwindle” first appeared in Henry IV, Part 1 (circa 1597) and referred to a gradual decrease or diminishing. Shakespeare’s linguistic inventiveness allowed him to capture nuances of human experience that had not been put into words before.

Amazement: Before Shakespeare, “amazement” wasn’t in the English lexicon. His use of the word in Othello (1604) marked its introduction, now a fundamental descriptor of astonishment.

Bedroom: Prior to Shakespeare, people might have referred to the “chamber” for rest, but the word “bedroom” as we understand it today was popularized by him.

For a playful exploration of Will’s genius, check out my novel Her Majesty’s Will, on sale now!

Cover art for Her Majesty's Will.