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Words, words, words: Shakespeare's neologisms

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Shakespeare’s world was exploding in all directions. England’s population was rising rapidly, London was booming, New Worlds were being discovered, religion and politics were in ferment (again), science was beginning to be scientific, capital becoming capitalistic and at least according to John Donne, the new philosophy was calling all in doubt. As if this wasn’t enough, Guy Fawkes tried to explode the Houses of Parliament on November 5 1605.

Given all these explosions, metaphorical and near literal, it’s not surprising there should have been a similar explosion of words. New things require new words to describe them, or at least new meanings ascribed to old words. Shakespeare alone is credited with over 2000 neologisms. This sounds like a heroic quantity, though it has to be said that many were not particularly exciting and mostly seemed to involve adding a prefix or suffix to an existing word. He turned ‘lone’ into ‘lonely’ and ‘gloom’ into ‘gloomy’, for example, which at least widened vocabulary for those of melancholy disposition everywhere.

It should also be said that while he is credited with the first usage of thousands of words, this doesn’t mean he actually invented them. What it simply reflects is that more of his work survives than that of any other writer. Hundreds of plays by his contemporaries have been lost, so that when compilers of dictionaries such as Dr Johnson made reference to first use of a word, it was often in his work they found it.

The lexicological fossil record also only shows words when a word first appeared in print. We have no reliable means of knowing when one first entered spoken language. Thus the earliest recorded use of ‘charmingly’ is in Cotgrave’s Dictionary of French and English Tongues, published in 1611, yet for it to have found its way into a dictionary implies a currency in everyday speech.

We may not know with certainty when a word first entered the language, or who coined it, but we can be sure that English was expanding at an astounding rate in the late Tudor and early Jacobean period. Shakespeare’s work reflects this.

Each of the comic book versions of the play I produce has an accompanying Teacher’s Book and each of these has a section on Shakespeare’s use of language. In that there is always a worksheet on words he is credited with coining. To produce this, I simply work through the comic book edition of the play in question trying to identify words he is likely to have invented. This generally comes to about forty. I then check these in the mighty Oxford English Dictionary, now a much easier task using the online edition.

For all kinds of complicated and frustrating reasons, there hasn’t been a new comic book or teacher’s book for several years. The last of these was The Tempest in which I identified 43 words perhaps first used by the bard. Of words on my list, four were very wild guesses – continuance dating from 1374, enjoined (1382),correspondent (1460) and hourly (1470).

Fifteen others had first had a recorded use up to a hundred years before Shakespeare wrote his final unassisted playThese were brutish (1513), gabardine(1520), inveterate (1528), unwillingly (1531, thoughunwilling – Old English unwillende – was first recorded in 897), abhorred (1533), malignant (1542), hollowly (1547, though as a verb hollow appears as early as 1250), bashful (1548), disgrace (1549), unwonted (1553, though unwont dates from 1400), surpasseth (the verb surpass first appeared in print in 1555), hoodwink (1573, from the game hoodmanblinde, otherwise known as ‘blindmanbuf’) and  twangling (1576), with incensed and marketable dating from 1577.

Of all these words, I was most disappointed to see Shakespeare hadn’t coined twangling, simply because it is such a beautiful and expressive adjective. In fact, while it had first been used adjectivally in 1576, it made an earlier appearance as a verb in a translation of Erasmus’ ‘Apophthegmes’ of 1542 by N Udall in which it’s said of a minstrel that he was the ‘wurste that euer twanged’.

Seven further words were originally used in the thirty years before 1610-11. These were bedimmed (1582), indignity (1584, though indign a verb meaning ‘to treat with indignity’, from the latin root indignari first appeared in 1490), thunderstroke (1587), overprized (1589), disproportioned (1597), deboshed (1598, from the French débauché) and expeditious  (1603).

I naturally hoped that Shakespeare had invented deboshed, but it turned out that honour goes to King James VI. Writing in the ‘Basilicon Doron’ on the subject of dress he advises subjects not to be ‘ouer superfluouse lyke a deboshed uaistoure.’ It is tempting to suppose that his spelling of ‘waster’ was due to his deboshed condition, but since he was King of Scotland and soon to become James I of England he could presumably spell anything the way he jolly well wanted.

Of the 43 words I initially identified as perhaps Shakespeare’s coinages, sixteen turned out to have been so, though not all were first used by him in The Tempest, others were merely the first use of a word in a new meaning while two might have been used by someone else contemporaneously.

Into the former category fall amazement (‘Troilus and Cressida’), bemocked (‘Coriolanus’), incapable (sonnets) and unbacked (‘Venus and Adonis’). The second category comprises bravely, insubstantial, invulnerable and suppler.  Of these, the earlier meaning of bravely had been ‘valiantly’ or ‘fearlessly’, while the OED gives Shakespeare’s usage as ‘gaily, splendidly, finely, handsomely’ – and I certainly wouldn’t argue with that. Insubstantial had formerly been used in 1607 to mean ‘not real’ or ‘imaginary’ while Prospero’s meaning is given as ‘void of substance’ or ‘unsubstantial’ which seems to be quite a fine distinction. Suppler was originally used in 1597 as a noun. It appeared in J Gerard’s ‘Herball’, a suppler being something used to make another thing more supple. Shakespeare uses it as an adjective when Gonzalo urges those ‘that are of suppler joints, follow them swiftly.’

Of the words used by others contemporaneously, invulnerable features in Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queen’ published in 1596, the same year that Shakespeare is thought to have written ‘King John’ in which King Philip declares, ‘Our cannons’ malice vainly shall be spent/Against the invulnerable clouds of heaven.’ As earlier noted, charmingly was first recorded in Cotgrave’s French and English dictionary of 1611, around the time Shakespeare was writing The Tempest.

This leaves seven words that the bard originated and used for the first time in the play. These are baseless, footfall, footlicker, murkiest, printless, rootedly and sea-change (OK, I know the latter is hyphenated, but it’s a lovely word, is expressive of the play’s central theme and is still used today).

Seven words may not sound like a huge number, but I can’t claim to have identified every possible new coinage. Even if I did, the comic book editions are edited and present only 50-60% of Shakespeare’s original text. This means there could be another seven completely new words in the passages that had been cut. If that were the case, then the whole play would contain fourteen entirely new words, or thirty two coinages including those words used for the first time in a new sense.

Thirty two words added to the lexicon seem to me to be quite a high return in what is one of his shortest works, written quite late in life (by Jacobean standards). Some years ago academics at the University of Toronto studied a selection of Agatha Christie’s novels written between the ages of 28 and 82. These were analysed for the numbers of different words, indefinite nouns and phrases used in each. They found that her vocabulary size decreased significantly towards her eighties, dropping by as much as 30% – while the repetition of phrases and indefinite words (‘something’, ‘thing’, ‘anything’) increased substantially.

Whatever the reasons for reading Agatha Christie, and there must be some, linguistical pyrotechnics was probably never going to be one. Even so, what the Toronto study indicates is that her vocabulary and language use contracted sharply towards the end of her life, possible reflecting the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

The Tempest was the last play Shakespeare wrote without collaboration. What a study of his neologisms show is that he was as fecund as ever, perhaps near the top of his form (though one would have to study every one of his other plays to establish if there had been any drop in new coinages). But you don’t need to study his word use to know that he was at the peak of his powers in 1611-12. The Tempest is, quite simply, one of his finest creations.

Shakespeare is said to have contributed over 2000 words to the language. New words haven’t stopped arriving, many driven by changing technology. Tweet enters the OED for the first time with its new meaning ‘to post (a message, item of information, etc.) on the social networking service Twitter’ while crowdsourcing is defined as ‘the practice of obtaining information or services by soliciting input from a large number of people, typically via the Internet and often without offering compensation.’

Another new entry is unfriend, in its latest sense of ‘To remove (a person) from a list of friends or contacts on a social networking website’, though in its earliest use as a noun meaning an ‘enemy’ it dates from as long ago as 1275 and as a verb from 1659 when T Fuller wrote, ‘I Hope, Sir, that we are not mutually Un-friended by this Difference which hath happened betwixt us.’ Everything changes. Everything stays the same.

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