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Shakespeare's Literature: Creating Words

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, in 1564, and during his lifetime, he wrote 38 plays and more than 150 poems. Shakespeare is widely regarded as the greatest playwright who ever lived, and his plays have been translated into virtually every language on Earth. Shakespeare's contributions to the world of literature are well-known, but somewhat less commonly understood is his contribution to the English language. Shakespeare created or recorded many previously unknown or unrecorded words and phrases, a sizable number of which people still use to this day.

Shakespeare as Neologist

Neologisms are newly coined words, though sometimes, you don't need to create a new word to convey an idea; it's perhaps even more common to imbue an old word with a new meaning. Neologisms and shifts in meaning play a large role in how a language evolves, and Shakespeare played an outsized part in the changes in the English language that took place as Modern English took hold. In fact, Shakespeare appears in more citations in the Oxford English Dictionary than any other writer, and linguists such as David Crystal suggest that about 1,700 of these words were actually invented by Shakespeare. About half of these words are still a part of our modern lexicon as well as being spoken in productions of his plays by companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company. Presented in a LitCharts-style list, some of the words coined by Shakespeare include:

  • Majestic
  • Obscene
  • Premeditated
  • Accommodation
  • Horrid
  • Frugal
  • Critical
  • Excellent
  • Reliance
  • Lonely

But not every word that Shakespeare wrote down would catch on. For example, he used the word "anthropophaginian" to mean "cannibal" in The Merry Wives of Windsor. It is also important to note that while some words were first recorded by Shakespeare, they were not all necessarily invented by him: It's possible that some of the words credited to Shakespeare were used in older texts that did not survive to the present day.

Shakespeare enjoyed experimenting with the English language. He felt that the rules of grammar should be played with, and often, he manipulated the conventions of the language to create new but intelligible words. For example, he often used the prefix "un-" to invent new words from existing ones, such as "unlock," "unhand," and "unveil." He also created compound words such as "bare-faced." Shakespeare also sometimes changed nouns into verbs and vice versa, and he added new meanings to existing words. For instance, the concept of an angel was well-known at the time, but calling Juliet an angel in Romeo and Juliet to mean that she was beautiful was a new use of the word.

Shakespeare in Context

Shakespeare wrote in Early Modern English during a time of great change in the English language. English was in transition from the Middle English used by writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer to the language we use today. Shakespeare was not the only writer to create and adapt words during this time. Ben Johnson created several words, such as "clumsy" and "defunct"; Sir Thomas Moore created the words "explain" and "exaggerate"; and Sir Thomas Floyd is credited with inventing the words "modesty" and "animate."

Phrases From Shakespeare

Shakespeare did not only invent words: He also invented phrases, many of which are still in use today. Some are easily recognized as being from Shakespeare, while others are not. These phrases include:

  • Vanish into thin air (Othello)
  • In a pickle (The Tempest)
  • In my mind's eye (Hamlet)
  • A laughing stock (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
  • Cold comfort (The Taming of the Shrew)

In fact, research by Bill Bryson, an author known for writing about the English language, found that a tenth of the quotes in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations were drawn from Shakespeare. The English language is ever-evolving, but the influence that Shakespeare had and continues to have over how we write and speak is a true testament to his skill as a wordsmith. Few can say they contributed a word or phrase to a language, but Shakespeare contributed hundreds, perhaps even thousands.

  • The Life and Legacy of Shakespeare: Examine Shakespeare's impact on our language and literature and how it persists to this day.
  • Why Shakespeare Remains an Icon: The Bard is still influential for many reasons.
  • Shakespeare's Characters: Find a comprehensive list of every character in every Shakespeare play here.
  • Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays? Many people suspect that at least part of Shakespeare's works weren't actually written by him.
  • To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare: Centuries after his death, Shakespeare might be one of the most famed authors of all time, but many questions still surround his life and works.
  • Shakespeare's Life: Learn more about Shakespeare's life, including his birth, his years in London, and his death.
  • Shakespeare's Family: Shakespeare might be one of the most famous writers of all time, but details about his personal life can be scant, with many gaps still remaining in his story.
  • The Globe: The Globe was the venue for many of Shakespeare's plays.
  • Shakespeare's Skull Was Probably Stolen: A study of Shakespeare's grave using modern radar technology showed that grave-robbers appear to have taken his skull, despite the fact that the grave is marked with a curse on anyone who moves the bones.
  • Shakespeare's Memorial: Though Shakespeare was buried in his hometown, a memorial to him stands in Poets' Corner at Westminster Abbey in London.