Shakespearean Mythbusting: Vocab

Holger Syme has a nice piece on Shakespeare’s vocabulary and why his supposed inventiveness with the English language is not exceptional.

Also, the list of other Elizabethan playwrights with their education (or lack thereof) and humble family backgrounds pretty much puts paid to the myth that Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

I would add two things to Syme’s article. The first is that the OED is used as a source for many such word studies, but the OED is heavily biased in favor of Shakespeare. His works were carefully picked apart for the first edition of the dictionary, with a care that no other writer got. The editors give precedence to Shakespeare citations over those of others. If they have two quotations and only room for one, the Shakespeare goes in the dictionary. (This is a sound editorial policy. After all, Shakespeare is much more likely to be read than other works and the need is greater, but it can skew the results when using the OED as a corpus.)

The second is that Shakespeare does not, as many claim, have the credit for the greatest number of first citations of words in the OED. That honor goes to Chaucer. As of today, the OED has 1,726 words with first citations from Shakespeare, but 2,220 by Chaucer, some 28% more. And Chaucer’s surviving corpus is only about half as big as Shakespeare’s, clocking in at about 385,000 words. This doesn’t mean that Chaucer was of singular talent either. The reason he gets so many first citations is chronology; he is the first major poet writing after the massive influx of Norman words into the language. (And there is a similar bias among OED editors in favor of Chaucer over his contemporaries.)

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