How Much Did Shakespeare Embiggen the English Vocabulary?

[Comments originally didn't work on this post; I've reposted it, and they work now.]

Shakespeare is often given credit for coining not just memorable phrases, but also hundreds of now-familiar words. The Christian Science Monitor (June 5, 2007), for instance, reports that "Shakespeare invented many words we still use today — such as amazement, lonely, and misplaced." Other sources cite still more, and the Oxford English Dictionary seems to support this judgment for many such words (including amazement, lonely, and misplaced, in at least some of their definitions). The New York Times (Dec. 26, 2004) echoed this view, though noted some uncertainty. The First Folio of Shakespeare, edited by Doug Moston and published in 1995, likewise reports that Shakespeare "actually invented over 1700 words which appear for the first time in his writing," including "accommodation, premeditation, assassination, submerged, exposure, frugal, generous, hurry, impartial, lonely, castigate, control, majestic, pious, sanctimonious, and obscene."

But the recent scanning of early English books in fully searchable format (see, for instance, Chadwyck-Healey's Early English Books Online [EEBO]) lets us test these claims — and it appears that many of them are mistaken: For instance, Philip Sidney's The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (1590) contains the phrase "her coming to that lonely place (where she had no body but her parents)." Modern editions (for instance, here) seem to confirm that this corresponds to the modern English "lonely." The OED Shakespeare reference is to Coriolanus (1607).

Likewise, a publisher's note in Euclid's Elements (1570) contains the phrase — slamming the publisher's competition — "But of the disordring of it, can remayne no doubt, if ye consider in Zamberts translation, two other propositions going next before it, so farre misplaced, that where they are, word for word, before duSingle illegible letterly placed, being the 105. and 106. yet here (after the booke ended), they are repeated with the numbers of 116. and 117. proposition."

Shakespeare scholarship seems to be moving towards recognizing this: The RSC Shakespeare's William Shakespeare: Complete Works, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, puts it well (pp. xliv-xlv, paragraph beak added):

Shakespeare is sometimes said to have coined more new English words than anyone else, with the possible exception of James Joyce. This is not true. The illusion of his unique inventiveness in this regard was created by the tendency of the Oxford English Dictionary to cite examples from him as the first usage of a word. That was because of his ready availability when the dictionary was created at the end of the Victorian era. Now that there are large digitized databases of sixteenth-century books, it is easy to find prior occurrences for many supposed Shakespearean coinage.

Despite this, the list of neologisms remains impressive. To give a random selection of words, Shakespeare is responsible for such verbs [or at least for their use in the written language -EV] as "puke," "torture," "misquote," "gossip," "swagger, "blanket" ..., and "champion" .... [Note that some of these, such as "torture," are amply attested in noun form; Shakespeare is being credited here with verbifying them. -EV] He seems to have invented the nouns "critic," "mountaineer," "pageantry," and "eyeball," the adjectives "fashionable," "unreal," "bloodstained," "deafening," "majestic," and "domineering," and the adverbs "instinctively" and "obsequiously" in the sense of "behaving in the appropriate way to render obsequies for the dead" (only in the eighteenth century did the word come to connote "excessive deference" ...).

Let this be a reminder: (1) Be careful believing etymological claims, especially ones that sound especially cool, even if they occur in seemingly reputable sources. (2) Even if you check reputable sources, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, keep in mind their limitations — the OED doesn't, to my knowledge, claim that their earliest reference is proven to be the earliest printed use of a word, though it does tend to try to use the earliest reference it can find. (3) Finally, if you want to rely on claims like this, and you have a university account, see if you can do your own quickie research in databases such as EEBO and the like (which I understand many universities subscribe to).

Incidentally, I was going to also urge people to be careful in believing claims that some author "invented" a word: Authors rarely invent words, even using accepted rules of word formation — while new phrases often sound vivid and creative, new words generally just sound odd, especially when one gives a reader dozens in one work, unless one is self-consciously trying to create some sort of fictional dialect (as in A Clockwork Orange) or writing about new discoveries that require new technical terminology. But while I think this is generally good advice, I should note that UCLA English Prof. Robert Watson reports that English society was more open to invented words in Shakespeare's time.

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  3. How Much Did Shakespeare Embiggen the English Vocabulary?
On what basis does Watson know that "English society was more open to invented words in Shakespeare's time"?

It's amusing that this post focuses on questioning accepted wisdom (i.e. the amount of Shakespeare's neologisms) and then repeats accepted wisdom that "society" was "more open to invented words" then than now.


What was the percentage of invented words society was open to then?

And now?

How many new words entered the language then? Now? In percentage terms?
10.8.2007 5:37pm
WL (mail):
A perfectly cromulent post, Eugene.
10.8.2007 5:42pm
Shakespeare wrote plays for the citizens of London. If he invented a whole lot of words out of whole cloth they wouldn't be able to understand what was going on. He may have been the first to write some of these words down, but I bet lots of them were being spoken at the time.
10.8.2007 5:45pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Davide: My brief summary doesn't do justice to the fairly substantial speech of Prof. Watson's that I read; but Watson is a scholar of Shakespeare and his era, and I suspect has a pretty substantial factual basis for his views.

Rbj: Watson points out that some Shakespearean passages that use neologisms take some pains to define the terms; and of course the meaning of other terms would be clear from context, for instance where a noun is used for the first time as a verb. I'm going to see if I can get a copy of Watson's speech that I can post.
10.8.2007 5:52pm
John A. Fleming (mail):
Ok, so let's make up some legal words, see if we can at least be in the same room as the Bard.

inlawful, jurosity, courtling, precedently, arguous, filicious.
10.8.2007 6:26pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
John A. Fleming: Quod licet jovi non licet bovi.
10.8.2007 6:28pm
oledrunk (mail):
How would one, in Shakespear's time, know if a word were new or not? Were not dictionaries a later innovation?
10.8.2007 6:32pm
"Shakespeare is responsible for such verbs [or at least for their use in the written language -EV]"; and your qualification, EV, will have occurred to every intelligent schoolboy when first he heard such absurd claims. It would also occur to him that any subsequent finds could only push the date of first usage earlier, not later. Bah!
10.8.2007 6:40pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
The problem with an author's invented words is that they tend not to stick. Of these (brillig, slithy, gimble, wabe, mimsy, borogroves, momgraths, outgrabe, jubjub, frumious, bandersnatch, vorpal, maxnome, tumtum, uffish, whiffling, tulgey, burbled, gallumphing, frabjous) which have stuck? And thats a popular example.

These (passencore, Armorica, wielderfight, penisolate, gorgios, mumper, bellowsed, mishe, tauftauf, thuartpeatrick,venissoon, vanessy, sosie, sethers, twone, nathandjoe) haven't made it anywhere.

It's much easier for a dumb politician to blunder a new word into the vocabulary (strategery, normalcy), than it is for any author to come up with one by fiat.
10.8.2007 7:03pm
Syd Henderson (mail):
Vorpal, burbled and galumphing have stuck. Some of Carroll's other words, such as chortled, have stuck as well.

I was always skeptical about the claim that Shakespeare invented so many words, because that would have made him incomprehensible.
10.8.2007 7:39pm
Richard Gould-Saltman (mail):
. . .and the counter-example to either or both of Duffy Pratt's examples is, of course, "quark",

which depending on who you believe, either is
related to the invisible 'snark' (as in "Hunting of the. . . ") or

comes verbatim out of the "Wake" ( the line is "Three quarks for Muster Mark! Sure he hasn't got much of a bark
And sure any he has it's all beside the mark. mark . . . ")
10.8.2007 7:48pm
John A. Fleming (mail):
vice: lilliputian, brobdingnagian, yahoos; by Swift
10.8.2007 7:57pm
Such Sweet Thunder:
I know what Mark Twain would have said about this post: "There's lies, damn lies, and statistics."

(That was a joke, albeit not a funny one, for the three people who get it.)
10.8.2007 8:17pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
The real question, of course, is how many new words have come from "The Simpsons"?
10.8.2007 8:18pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
Ten or twenty years ago I read somewhere (most likely the TLS) that Shakespeare was undoubtedly wrongly credited with many words because the authors who anticipated him could not easily be checked. The example given was Lyly's Euphues, read by everyone in Shakespeare's day, unread and pretty much unreadable today, and (most important) not equipped with a concordance. As I recall, the author thought that once Lyly and other likely sources were available in searchable electronic form, we would we able to backdate a large percentage of supposed Shakespearean coinages. Whether that has occurred, I do not know.
10.8.2007 8:22pm
Charlie Tips:
And the Bard had many more offerings that didn't take... "exsufflicate" comes to mind. One revelation to me, having to take Shakespeare as a freshman and not reading any of his contemporaries until a couple of years later was how much more readable Marlowe and company were by comparison, being much more content to stick with standard early modern English despite their university educations.

One reason for Shakespeare's use of inventiveness, I believe, was the public's appreciation for courtly language and the high-flown expressiveness of nobles. This is on particular display in Hamlet, where Hamlet's locution remains a notch above others in the court until he encounters the affected Osric and must jump it up another couple of notches. I believe Hamlet also contains Polonious talking about the vileness of "beautify," an earlier Shakespeare coinage that met with derision from certain critics.
10.8.2007 9:33pm

The real question, of course, is how many new words have come from "The Simpsons"?

There used to be a wikipedia entry on this, but it was apparently too craptastic and didn't follow wikipedia's standards exarctly. (I know, seems unpossible) Anyhoo, here is a debigulated version.
10.8.2007 10:20pm
Prof. Volokh,

Thanks for the response. Suffice it to say that I am most skeptical that Prof. Watson has any factual basis for his assertion. I doubt there is any way to know whether "society," however that term is construed, is more or less "open" to new words now than in Shakespeare's time. Of course, I'd be happy to be proved in error, but I doubt there is any proof one way or the other.

In any case, I doubt the veracity of the claim because English is now spoken by hundreds of millions (billions?) of people, many of whom have mother languages other than English. It seems to me that these people will be creating vastly more words (on percentage terms) than the English with whom Watson concerns himself. Furthermore, the language now must expand to capture new technological and scientific areas (and cultural areas) that were unknown and unforeseeable to Shakespeare. Just think of all the chemica terminology new to this century, much less the last one.

Bottom line: I believe the statement is baseless and (my hunch) false. But it does like just the sort of nostrum that accompanies other claims (such as that Shakespeare invented so many words)....
10.8.2007 11:14pm
Bleepless (mail):
I have found the following useful, in a variety of circumstances: Fie on thee, black-livered bat!
10.8.2007 11:28pm
My favorite phrase is "The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon". It may not be wise or politically correct to use it today, but it's a great line.

Regardless of the question of how many words in use today were invented by Shakespeare, the size of the vocabulary found in Shakespeare is remarkable.
10.9.2007 12:47am
Fat Man (mail):
English is Shakespeare's language we just use it without his permission. The correct attitude is gratitude.
10.9.2007 2:25am
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):
There were, at the time, references available, as today, to aid writers. I assume WS used them.

as to

(I'm going to bold this quote, Orin, and the devil take the hindmost)-
On what basis does Watson know that "English society was more open to invented words in Shakespeare's time"?

Like the Teutonic language Anglo-Saxon/English is, it has been open to compounding, metaphorizing, alliterating, prefixing and suffixing*, etc., almost as a rule if not actually so, as illustrated in A-S poetry, pre-dating WS by centuries.

To my investigation this mechanic of coining, etc, has never been more open to use, or not, at any particular time, and it continues.

*I may have just done it myself.
10.9.2007 2:04pm
count (mail):
RE: On what basis does Watson know that "English society was more open to invented words in Shakespeare's time"?

Because it is currently firmly closed to them invented words.
Proof: so few of them occur now (TLA's don't count), more often we hear of some celebrity being jailed, than we do about new word coined.
It takes comedians to sneak in new words: re-gifting, double-dipping (Seinfeld) or "Meaning of Liff" (Douglas Adams) - actually they are not new words, just reused geographical names.
I argue, that if English was opened the way other languages are, than we would have hundreds of new words to learn each year. What we have instead, are hundreds of new meanings of existing words (and TLA's), adding to confusion. This phenomenon of English language exists for some time now and prevented it from having new terms for new things.
10.9.2007 4:11pm
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):
I argue, that if English was opened the way other languages are,

10.9.2007 7:13pm
count (mail):
I think of German, Polish and Russian, however other languages may evidence this better.
That "fear" of creating new words in English lead to the situation, where noone I asked can name a job or profession that wouldn't use the word "head". I perceive this as a down side. These "heads" have sometimes dedicated words in other languages, better serving the communication and enriching their vocabularies, by providing new roots for adverbs, adjectives and verbs.

Rewording my original point, the answer to the question, whether "English society was more open to invented words in Shakespeare's time" I claim that it must have been, since some words did make it to our times after all, and current status of English is NWD (New Words Disallowed), with exceptions for humour and creations by non-native speakers.
10.9.2007 9:10pm
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):
I claim that it must have been, since some words did make it to our times after all, and current status of English is NWD (New Words Disallowed)

I'm reminded of rabbits. Centuries ago, rabbits were known as "conies"; "Coney island" in NYC being an example of the word applied. A time came, I believe Elizabethan, when a term referring to female genitalia arose, that being "cunny". As this term was close to "coney", "coney" after awhile was dropped to avoid embarrassment, etc.

In our present society, the word "niggardly" is dropped for similar reason, that being it is close in pronunciation to an unacceptable racist slur.

Not convinced. The language is as vital, perhaps more so, as any other.
10.10.2007 11:26am