Twenty Words We (Probably) Don’t Owe to William Shakespeare

A 31 January posting on the Mental Floss website has been making the rounds of Facebook and other social media sites. The post, by Roma Panganiban, lists twenty words that Shakespeare allegedly coined. The post is unadulterated bardolatry. Yes, Shakespeare was the greatest English playwright and a pretty darn good poet as well, but he was not a literary superman, and claims that he coined thousands of words have been around for years. Panganiban claims some “2200 never-before-seen words” that can be attributed to Shakespeare, although I have no idea where she gets this number.

Don’t get me wrong. Bill Shakespeare was linguistically playful and imaginative. But most of the words listed in the OED has having first citations by him can probably be antedated. (The first two editions of the dictionary have a strong bias for including quotations by Shakespeare and excluding ones from less well-known writers, a bias that is slowly being corrected with the third edition. And even with that bias, Geoff Chaucer has more first citations than Bill.) And those that can’t be antedated mostly fall into the category of in oral use for years before being written down, a caveat which Ms. Panganiban acknowledges, to her credit.

We also must remember that we don’t know when Shakespeare wrote most of his plays. Most of the words on the list were in use by other writers at about the same time, and in these cases without knowing exactly when the Bard wrote his plays, we can’t accurately determine if he was the first to put the words in print. (The OED is all over the map with the dating of Shakespeare’s plays, so it’s an unreliable guide. Presumably this problem is being cleaned up in the third edition.) And of course the versions of the plays that have come down to us vary in their fidelity to Shakespeare’s originals. Some weren’t written down until after his death and all contain various editorial interventions by others.

I spent about an hour poking around the Early English Books Online database and found that fourteen of Panganiban’s twenty words are either certainly not or unlikely to be Shakespeare coinages. (And only about a third of the EEBO holdings are indexed for full text search, so it’s likely that further antedatings are buried in the digital images in the database, not to mention all the other publications and manuscripts that aren’t in it at all.)

So here are the twenty words that we (probably) don’t owe to William Shakespeare:

addiction. Nope, the word appears in the Glasse of Truthe, written in 1532. And the sense of the word in these early years was that of activity, occupation. The word didn’t acquire the modern sense of compulsive consumption of a drug or alcohol until the late eighteenth century.

arch-villain. Nope. The word appears in John Marston’s The Malcontent, published in 1604, a year before the most common date given to Timon of Athens. But Shakespeare also uses the word in Measure for Measure, written at about the same time as The Malcontent. So it was probably not coined by either man, but rather one floating about London at the time.

cold-blooded. I can’t be sure on this one, mainly because no one knows when King John was written. Other contemporary writers were using cold-blooded too, so it’s probably not Shakespeare’s invention.

dishearten. Nope. The word appears in Anthony Munday’s 1590 The First Book of Amadis of Gaule a decade before Will penned Henry V.

fashionable. Shakespeare is the first one recorded as applying this adjective to people, but William Averell was writing about fashionable apparel some five years before Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida.

hot-blooded. Shakespeare may have been the first to use it, but Ms. Panganiban gets the play wrong. Shakespeare first uses the word in The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was written before King Lear.

half-blooded. Shakespeare may get credit for the adjective, but the noun half-blood is half a century older.

inaudible. Nope. George Puttenham uses the word in his 1589 The Arte of English Poesie, a work with which Shakespeare was very familiar.

ladybird. Yes, Romeo and Juliet is the earliest recorded use, but the word was almost certainly in wide oral use when Shakespeare wrote his play.

manager. Nope. John Leslie wrote of “the chiefe Manager of your affaires” way back in 1572.

multitudinous. Nope. Thomas Dekker’s 1603 pamphlet The Wonderfull Yeare uses the word. 1603 is the earliest possible date for Shakespeare writing Macbeth, so he certainly didn’t coin it. (And the OED has the Dekker citation, so there is no excuse for this one.)

newfangled. Not by a long shot. This one goes back the Proverbs of Hendyng, which is found in the late twelfth century manuscript Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Digby 86. And even the OED has a citation from 1496.

pageantry. Nope. Let’s put aside the fact that Shakespeare was at best a co-author of Pericles and there are all sorts of disputes over authorship of the play and focus on the fact that Ben Jonson was using the word several years before Pericles could have been written.

swagger. Possibly. The earliest published use of the word is in John Norden’s 1597 The Mirror of Honor, which may or may not have been written after Shakespeare wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

uncomfortable. Okay, but Shakespeare’s innovation was using the word in the modern sense. Uncomfortable was in use earlier in the sense of inconsolable.

In all, only six out of the twenty words on the list have a good shot at being real coinages of the Bard. These are: assassination, bedazzled, belongings, eventful, eyeball, and scuffle. (Note that all of these are formed from existing English words and affixes in very standard and uninspiring ways.) That’s a pretty darn good record that anyone should be proud of, but let’s not overhype Shakespeare’s reputation. It stands on its own without any help from us.

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