I remember reading Macbeth at school and being instantly beguiled. Here was a world rich with layered meaning, coloured by vivid metaphors and expertly finessed into a captivating moral story. But I didn’t realise at that young age there were words Shakespeare invented that we still use today.
I’m not talking about Old English words either that have no relevance to everyday life. I’m talking about normal, common words that we use without even thinking about their origins. In fact, it is estimated that Shakespeare invented over 1,700 words into the English language.
Now, when I say that Shakespeare invented words, what I mean is this – he created new words by taking existing ones and changing them in some way. For instance, he would change nouns into verbs, add prefixes and suffixes to words, and joined words together to make a whole new word.
For example, he changed the noun ‘elbow’ to make a verb, he added the prefix ‘un’ to the verb ‘dress’ to denote the ‘taking off of one’s clothes’. He added suffix ‘less’ to the word ‘feature’ to signify a barren landscape. He also joined words together to make a whole new word such as ‘ill-tempered’, ‘never-ending’, and ‘money’s worth’.
So you get the picture. As such, the following list is not one totally made up of words Shakespeare invented out of the blue.
These words did exist in some form or other before. What I can assure you is that these are words Shakespeare first used in written text, so then by using that definition he really did invent them.
Here are just 15 words Shakespeare invented that you probably use very often.
15 Words Shakespeare Invented
Measure for Measure: Act III, Scene I
“Thou art not noble; For all the accommodations that thou bear’st Are nursed by baseness.” – Duke Vincentio
We associate the word accommodation with a place of residence. Shakespeare was the first to link it to meanings of assistance, help, or obligations.
Henry IV: Act V, Scene I
“These things, indeed, you have articulated,
Proclaim’d at market-crosses, read in churches.” – Henry IV
It is believed that Shakespeare derived the word articulate from the Latin word ‘articulus’ which means ‘an article or condition in a covenant’ to convey a ‘declaration in articles’.
Macbeth: Act I, Scene VII
“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly: if the assassination could trammel up the consequence, and catch with his surcease success.” – Macbeth
Of course, there were assassins in Shakespeare’s times, but he was the one to add the suffix to make this a method of murder.
Measure for Measure: Act I, Scene I
“Thyself and thy belongings are not thine own so proper as to waste thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.” – Duke Vincentio
This seems such an ordinary word, but people just didn’t refer to their stuff as ‘belonging’s before Shakespeare coined this term.
King John: Act III, Scene I
“Thou cold-blooded slave, hast thou not spoke like thunder on my side, been sworn my soldier, bidding me depend upon thy stars, thy fortune and thy strength, and dost thou now fall over to my fores?” – Constance
This is another one of those words Shakespeare invented that seems to be obvious in retrospect. But again, no one had linked ‘cold-blooded’ to character traits of evil people before.
Henry V: Act IV, Scene I
“Therefore when he sees reason of fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are: yet, in reason, no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army.” – King Henry V
Shakespeare loved to add prefixes to words in order to change their meaning. This is a good example. ‘Hearten’ means to encourage and was around in his time. Shakespeare just added ‘dis’ to mean the opposite.
King Lear: Act IV, Scene II
“They are apt enough to dislocate and tear – Thy flesh and bones.” – Albany
When you think about it, there is a pretty big difference between locate and dislocate. This is the genius of Shakespeare.
As You Like It: Act II, Scene VII
“Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” – Jaques
It’s not easy adding prefixes and suffixes to words and making them into new words that sound right. If you think it is, try taking a noun and doing it yourself. I think this is the reason that the words Shakespeare invented have stuck around for so long.
Troilus and Cressida: Act III, Scene III
“For time is like a fashionable host that slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand, and with his arms outstretch’d, as he would fly, grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles, and farewell goes out sighing.” – Ulysses
One more example of how adding a suffix to the end of a word can give it a different meaning.
All’s Well That Ends Well: Act V, Scene III
“Let’s take the instant by the forward top; for we are old, and on our quick’st decrees the inaudible and noiseless foot of Time steals ere we can effect them.” – King of France
A favourite trick of Shakespeare was to add ‘in’ to a word to give it a different (usually negative) inference. Further examples of this are informal, inauspicious, and indirection.
Coriolanus: Act IV, Scene I
“Like to a lonely dragon, that his fen, Makes fear’d and talk’d of more than seen–your son. Will or exceed the common or be caught, with cautelous baits and practise.” Coriolanus
In Shakespeare’s time, words such as alone and lone were in common use, but no one had thought of the word ‘lonely’ to describe the feeling of being alone.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Act V, Scene I
“Where is our usual manager of mirth? What revels are in hand? Is there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?” – King Theseus
Believe it or not, before Shakespeare there was no word for a manager. He took the verb ‘to manage’ and created a job title from it.
Antony and Cleopatra: Act II, Scene V
“So half my Egypt were submerged and made. A cistern for scaled snakes!” – Cleopatra
Another prefix, a classier way of saying underwater.
Romeo and Juliet: Act IV, Scene V
“Despised, distressed, hated, martyr’d, kill’d! Uncomfortable time, why camest thou now to murder, murder our solemnity?” – Capulet
As well as adding ‘in’ to new words Shakespeare invented, he did love to add ‘un’ in front to make new ones. This is just one example.
Two Gentleman of Verona: Act IV, Scene II
“But Silvia is too fair, too true, too holy, to be corrupted with my worthless gifts.” Proteus.
Now, Shakespeare could have used a variety of prefixes or suffixes to make the word ‘worth’ into a negative. Consider these; unworth, inworthible, unworthable, disworth. Instead, he chose worthless. It’s not as easy as you think!
So, do you agree that Shakespeare was a literary genius? Do you know any words Shakespeare invented that you would like to share? Please let me know in the comments box below.
- Featured image: Engraved portrait of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout, from the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623
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