Shakespeare invented English

2 Mar

Well, obviously not, but it’s no more outrageous than the claims made, some in books by reputable publishers, that Shakespeare invented some thousands of words. Shakespeare may have invented some words, maybe even a few hundred, or he may have invented no words at all. The truth is we’ll never know. So what’s the source of these claims? Essentially it’s a confusion between written and spoken language, the assumption of the primacy of the written word, failing to understand that Shakespeare’s texts are now heavily edited, and a lack of understanding of how language changes and is documented.

Amanda Mabillard, editor of Shakespeare Online, claims that Shakespeare invented ‘over 1700 words’ (, and many other claims are even more extravagant, for example Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless in their 1998 Coined by Shakespeare: Words and Meanings First Used by the Bard, claim that it was in the thousands. This book was somehow published by Merriam-Webster.  Such claims are unprovable, and in all likelihood hogwash. David Crystal, in The Stories of English (2004), presents a more realistic picture, reminding us that these words appeared for the first time in print in Shakespeare’s works. I’d go further, however. They may well not even have appeared for the first time in print in Shakespeare’s works – all we know for sure is that Shakespeare’s use of these words is the earliest known appearance of these words in writing. Had it not been for the actions of John Heminges and Henry Condell, surviving members of Shakespeare’s theatre company, in publishing Shakespeare’s plays after his death, many of these words might not have survived, or survived only in later writings, and we would not attribute them to Shakespeare today.

To conclude from the earliest surviving example of a word that it was invented at that point, we would surely have to conclude that Homer invented Greek.  Consider the writing down or recording of the language of contemporary popular culture. No one would suggest that the word hip-hop, for example, was invented by the person who first wrote it down or recorded it, even though in a hundred years or so that may be the earliest evidence of the word that remains (according to the Oxford English Dictionary, hip-hop first appeared in the January 1982 edition of N.Y. Rocker). There is no meaningful sense in which the journalist who wrote that article invented the word hip-hop. Yet this is precisely what we are doing when we accuse Shakespeare of having invented the words that occur in his plays and in no earlier surviving written text. It is more likely that, just like the person who first wrote or recorded the word hip-hop, Shakespeare was chronicling the linguistic behaviour of his time. Many of the words he allegedly invented would have been words he had heard, some of the others might well have been original coinings, but he would have simply been following a pattern of productive affixation that was common at the time (and indeed still is today, in most varieties of spoken English).


When a friend recently reminded me of the claim, I took a look at their list (go on, have a look at it, it’s here). I’d like to pick out a few examples that are claimed to have been invented by Shakespeare – I chose these at random, because the words grabbed me. The first is zany. Mabillard claims Shakespeare invented it in Love’s Labour’s Lost, which we believe was written in about 1598. In the quarto of 1598 it’s spelled “saine”, but in the first folio of 1623 it’s “zanie”. However, Thomas Lodge has the word in one of his pamphlet Wits Miserie in 1696 as “Zani”, and it is a straight-out borrowing of the Italian word “Zanni” (also spelled zani), a jester. This information is readily available in the Oxford English Dictionary. The Zanni, by the way, is and was then a popular character in the Commedia dell’Arte – the name itself deriving from a pronunciation of the common name Gianni.

So in what sense did Shakespeare invent zany? It’s an Italian word, borrowed into English. Even setting aside the fact that Lodge used it before Shakespeare, it makes no sense to claim either of them ‘invented’ it. Did the first person to write down “karaoke” in an English sentence invent the word?

I suspect that what Mabillard may have done is to look for the earliest version of the word spelled “zany”, and having found it in a modern edition  of Shakespeare’s play (because a 19th or 20th century editor has standardised the spelling), assumed Shakespeare spelled it that way. This is simply not the case. We don’t know how Shakespeare himself spelled it, we only know how the compositor of the First Folio spelled it (arguably on instructions from Heminges and Condell, who were arguably copying the spelling from Shakespeare, but that’s already two levels of remove from Shakespeare himself). We do know that other writers around the time used the word (zanie is also in Ben Jonson’s 1600 Every Man Out of His Humor – PS note the spelling of “humor”, and see this previous entry for an explanation), and we know that it was an Italian word, from the Commedia dell’Arte, quite likely in common use among those who attended plays, which was most of London by all accounts, and certainly playwrights like Jonson and Shakespeare.

A number of words on Mabillard’s list just look like the result of very poor research. She lists ode as originating from Love’s Labours Lost (1598) despite the fact that it was attested in English with that meaning for at least 60 years prior, that is from before Shakespeare’s birth. To cast this in the kindest possible light, I might propose that at the time Mabillard wrote her list (2000), the Spenser (1579) and Elyot (1538) uses were yet to be discovered, but that would only prove that simply being in the earliest existing written text does not constitute invention.

In fact, for almost all the words that Mabillard lists which I bothered to check (eg. luggage, epileptic, pedant, lower…) there is at least one use listed in the OED earlier than or contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s.


It is well worth considering how the creation of words happened (and still happens). We will use two examples which are often accredited to Shakespeare. One is assassination, a word still very much in use today. The earliest surviving record of this word is in Macbeth (I. vii.) “If th’ Assassination Could trammell up the Consequence, and catch with his surcease, success,” – thought to have been written in 1605. Three years earlier we have the earliest known appearance of the noun assassinate (now out of use) in Simon Paterick’s translation of Gentillet (according to the OED). Curiously, the verb assassinate, according to the OED, first appears in Edmund Bolton’s 1618 translation of The Roman histories of Lucius Julius Florus. Both are derived by normal English suffixes from the word assassin, which first appears in (or rather survives from) written English some three quarters of a century earlier, and is borrowed from the Arabic word meaning ‘hashish eater’ (referring to an Ismaili sect who ate hashish in preparation for killing notable figures). Shakespeare (or one of his contemporaries) used the perfectly common English suffix /-(at)ion/, as found in pedestrian words like invit-ation,  to create a new word to describe the activity undertaken by an assassin. Hence a word borrowed from another language is indigenised and then treated as any other English word when it comes to the use of morphology (prefixes and suffixes). This is typical of Early Modern English, and can still be seen today, such as when borrowings like the noun liaison (from French) are turned into English verbs like liaise.

Another example is the no-longer-used vastidity, which appears in Measure for Measure, thought to have been written in 1603. The word was still in use at least as recently as 1962 (again according to the OED). The word vast had been in the English language since Shakespeare was a young lad, originally from either the French or Latin. Shakespeare (or one of his contemporaries) simply added the suffixes /-id/ and /-ity/ (as limp, limpid, limpidity). However, English has many suffixes at its disposal for turning one kind of word into another, and alongside /-ity/ for turning an adjective into a noun (stupidity, superfluity, ability) we also have the suffix /-ness/. Indeed, it is the form vastness, which first appears (as best we know) in writing in Francis Bacon’s 1605 The Advancement of Learning, that survives to this day.

Mabillard admits that a number of the words on her list were ‘invented’ by Shakespeare “by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes…” But this is just using English, not inventing words. All speakers of English do this and have done it since well before Shakespeare was a gleam in John (Zanni) Shakespeare’s eye-ball (earliest surviving written use of eye-ball : Venus and Adonis, William Shakespeare, 1593). You and I and The Simpsons do it all the time (embiggen, cromulent). These make up the vast majority of the words that it is claimed Shakespeare invented.

Alongside the invention, or rather chronicling, of individual words, Shakespeare is also often credited with the invention or coining of phrases which are with us to this day. This fits Mabillard’s class of “connecting words never before used together.” These may indeed be Shakespeare inventions, but this isn’t ‘inventing words’, it’s poetry. Some of the better known examples include:

blinking idiot (The Merchant of Venice)

fair play (King John)

for goodness’ sake (King Henry VIII)

foregone conclusion (Othello)

if the (good) truth were known (A Winter’s Tale)

into thin air (The Tempest)

knit (one’s) brow (The Taming of the Shrew)

more sinned against than sinning (King Lear)

one fell swoop  (Macbeth)

own flesh and blood (The Merchant of Venice)

puppy-dog (King John)

rhyme nor reason (As You Like It)

salad days (Antony and Cleopatra)

short shrift (Richard III)

the crack of doom (Macbeth)

Nowadays we toss of phrases like “my own flesh and blood” with nary a thought. But imagine being in the audience (or being the actor that got to say it) when, for the first time, a person referred to their offspring as being made of their very own flesh and the self-same blood! How potent!

Once again, it is not possible to know whether Shakespeare invented these phrases, now a part of everyday English, or whether they were current or ‘street’ parlance in his day, and he merely had his finger so firmly on the pulse of the current state of colloquial English that he recorded more of these phrases than any other writer of his time. If the latter is true, then it begs the question of why Shakespeare, among all the playwrights of his time, seems to have been the chronicler of current English usage. Jonson and Marlowe, for example, do not give us nearly so many phrases and words (even calculating proportionally with regard to the number of plays they wrote, as compared to the prolific output of Shakespeare). It may explain why Shakespeare was so successful in his own day, and it may help to put pay to the various alternate theories that would have a more educated playwright than the middle class Shakespeare as the author of the works attested to him. Marlowe and Jonson tended to write a slightly more archaic language, perhaps in order to please the nobility and the erudite, where Shakespeare seems to have an ear for the colloquial as well as the refined, and writes equally for the urchin as the queen. The breadth of his language, then, cuts across classes and occupations, and includes the mutable and adolescent language of the streets and taverns alongside that of the courts and banquet halls.

Shakespeare was considered a bit low-brow by his contemporaries, an upstart commoner who put the language of the street on the stage, but perhaps it’s this very lowness of brow that allowed him to capture the mutability and inventiveness of the language around him, rather than write to an already-accepted style and voice. There is no doubt that spoken English was in great flux during the Elizabethan and Jacobean period (which deserves a blog entry all its own, in lieu of which I recommend David Crystal’s book The Stories of English), and it is almost certainly the case that Shakespeare, more so than any other writer of the time, captured that flux. Part of this is because he was writing plays to be played in a playhouse, and not literature to be read by the educated.


10 Responses to “Shakespeare invented English”

  1. RubyD March 2, 2013 at 11:57 pm #

    Another excellent post Rob, so interesting. There are a lot of ‘assassins’ on the Ferny Grove train line around midday. Also, I had to google the term ‘the fifth column’ as I wasn’t familiar with it, very clever!

    • robpensalfini March 3, 2013 at 12:18 am #

      Thanks Ruby. If you click on “About” on the blog page, you’ll get an explanation of why the blog is called that, along with some biographical information about the author 🙂

  2. Karen March 3, 2013 at 12:07 am #

    Wonderful. Thanks Rob

  3. Janelle Colquhoun March 3, 2013 at 12:45 am #

    Ah-ha! So, those plebs amongst us writing commercial or genre fiction, are in fact more Shakespearean than those snobs writing literature!

  4. amber March 3, 2013 at 1:42 am #

    Love it. Verrrry interesting and nicely put. Is this controversy or common sense, though? 😉 Funnily enough, my first ever uni paper (EVER) was a 1500-worder about Shakespeare being an icon of English precisely because he showed what English was doing at the time, and still likes to do now: borrow, assimilate, concoct. This is funny because I didn’t know anything much about Shakespeare beyond playing Benedick in a school drama assignment (how come I was the boy…?), but I had to write about something. So, I chose Shakespeare. I was enrolled in English through Time and Space that same semester. Inter-subject cross-fertilisation.

    I still don’t know very much about Shakespeare except that he apparently spelt his own name at least 17 different ways, which I find annoying. Pick one, Bill!

    • robpensalfini March 3, 2013 at 4:31 am #

      Hey Amber, it might seem like common sense to you and me, but as I said at the start, the claim that he “invented” all these words is oft-repeated, taken for gospel, and found in places that, frankly, ought to know better.

      • amber March 3, 2013 at 10:41 am #

        Well I’m sure that I parroted it at one stage myself, as a n00b uni student and language nerd. :-/ But you don’t have to think too hard about it to realise that recording a word and inventing it are two different things. I often repeat things that I’ve heard ‘somewhere’ and they become staples of family and friendship-circle conversations. Sometimes I feel like I’ve coined a word when I actually just heard my three-year-old nephew say it after an episode of Peppa Pig.

  5. JC March 3, 2013 at 3:53 am #

    So, those plebs amongst us  writing commercial or genre fiction, are in fact more Shakespearean than those snobs writing literature!

  6. dconstructions March 3, 2013 at 7:28 am #

    “But this is just using English, not inventing words.” It is fairly clear, from any experience with English, that the two things are one and the same. Shakespeare invented English by using it better than others.

  7. “Nowadays we toss of phrases like “my own flesh and blood” with nary a thought. But imagine being in the audience (or being the actor that got to say it) when, for the first time, a person referred to their offspring as being made of their very own flesh and the self-same blood! How potent!”

    for the first time ?

    cf. Genèse 2,23

    ou peut-être même encore 1000 (ou 2000) ans plus tôt ?

    l’expression vient en tout cas d’un jeu de mots en sumérien, in “Enki et Ninhursag” (2200 av. J.C. ?)

    cf. Kramer, Samuel Noah. History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Man’s Recorded History. 1956/1e (25 firsts), 1959/2e (27 firsts) 1981/3e. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0-8122-7812-7.

    (p. 199-200 de la trad. française (par Josette Hesse), Paris : Arthaud, 1957, à la fin du ch. XIX : Paradis : Les premiers “parallèles” avec la Bible).

    Bye-bye young Shakespeare !

    English is not the first international language : Sumerian is its elder by 4000 years.
    English is not the last international language : Esperanto arose ! 😉


    Amike (= “friendlily”, in Esperanto of course)

    Dr Christian Lavarenne

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