Shakespeare, the Bard

(Shakespeare is given credit for coining more than 1,500 words for the English language)

The influence of "The Bard"

Have you ever had too much of a good thing? Been eaten out of house and home, a laughing stock, in a pickle, or encountered a foregone conclusion? Well, all's one to me, and you may think you're just speaking the Queen's English; but as good luck would have it, if you use any of these phrases, you're actually quoting Shakespeare.

"The bard", as he's often known, is credited with coining more phrases and sayings than any other individual, and many of them are still in use today. In addition, Shakespeare appears in the Oxford English Dictionary as the first recorded user of more than 1,500 words.

Word conversions

Many of these neologisms are cases of word conversions, where Shakespeare took an existing word and used it in a new context or with an altered function.

One of the most common ways of coining new words is verbing, or verbification, where a verb is created from a noun, adjective, or other type of word. A modern example is the verb "to text" from the noun "text message". A Shakespearean equivalent is "Destruction straight shall dog them at the heels' (Richard II) – the first recorded use of "do"' as a verb.

Likewise, nouns can be created out of verbs; Shakespeare's plays contain the first recorded instances of the noun 'amazement', but we know that the verb 'amaze' was already in use. At times these coinages are for poetic effect, at times for greater accuracy of expression, and at times simply to make sentences fit into iambic pentameter.

Poetic license

The extent of creative flexibility in Shakespeare's use of language is in part a symptom of his historical context. He lived at a time when coming across a new word or usage was far from strange; interest in the classical languages was going strong, while traders and explorers were bringing back new terms from around the globe.

To add to this openness, English had not yet been formally collected and defined. The first dictionary of the English language, compiled by Samuel Johnson, was not published until 1755, over a century after Shakespeare's death in 1616. So at the time Shakespeare was writing, English was very much in flux, with spelling and meaning open to variation.

Popular culture

Of course Shakespeare wasn't just anyone; he was one of the greatest masters of the language ever to have lived, so it's no surprise that so many of his usages and phrases made it into common parlance.

Today, quotes films, TV programes and songs often become well known sayings ("I'll be back" from The Terminator for example). Similarly, in Elizabethan and Jacobean times, people would have repeated catchy phrases picked up at the theater; the equivalent of today's popular entertainment. Some, at the aristocratic end of society, would even have written down phrases or words for future reference, as an extensive vocabulary was a mark of status.

Some words that were first recorded in Shakespeare' works and which are still in common use:

  • Fashionable
  • Sanctimonious
  • Assassination
  • Premeditated
  • Epileptic
  • Flawed
  • Beached
  • Negotiate
  • Lonely
  • Countless
  • Castigate
  • Impartial
  • Suspicious
  • Inauspicious
  • Dwindle
  • Critical
  • Dishearten
  • Frugal
  • Aggravate
  • Cranny
  • Summit
  • Excellent
  • Monumental
  • Fragrant
  • Beguiling

Some Shakespearian phrases that are still in use, and their original contexts

  • A sorry sight (Macbeth – the hero lamenting his bloodied hands)
  • Come full circle (King Lear – Edmund recognising that his villainous acts have caught up with him)
  • Tongue-tied (Sonnet 85 – the poet says his muse is lost for words)
  • Seen better days (As You Like It – the exiled Duke on his situation)
  • My own flesh and blood (The Merchant of Venice – Shylock angered by his daughter's betrayal)
  • The world's my oyster (The Merry Wives of Windsor – Pistol bragging of his prowess in extracting money with his sword)

Some words that didn't make it

  • Put like this, it sounds as though Shakespeare may have written his works on an iPad, propped up on a motion couch, while checking the latest trends on Twitter. But not all of his coinages have lasted the test of time. Have you ever heard anyone called a lewdster (lewd person), or used the verb acture (action-taking
  • How about shunless (unavoidable), sprag (clever), or immoment (unimportant)?

These were also Shakespearean neologisms; but ones that didn't quite make the cut in the evolution of the language. Still, it's difficult to underestimate the influence of the man responsible for the first recorded use of words; such as, upstairs, downstairs, shooting star, deafening, awesome, gloomy, educate, and hurry.

Do you get the idea?

—Much of the information was composed from
The Oxford Companion of the English Language, Edited by Tom McArthur;
Oxford University Press; New York; 1992; pages 926-930.