Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Shakespeare’s neologisms

Watch Jonathan Culpeper explore the truth behind the idea that Shakespeare invented a huge number of new words.
In this talk, we turn to what is probably the most popular myth about Shakespeare’s language, that he invented a huge number of new words, neologisms, more than any other writer. I address the question of whether Shakespeare really did coin a huge number of words and addressed this by investigating possible candidates for neologisms in the large EEBO-TCP corpus. So let’s address the key question of whether Shakespeare did coin a huge number of words. You have already looked at the internet for neologisms. What did you learn there? When I did it, these are some of the hits I came up with. This was my first hit. “Shakespeare coined more words than other writers, around 1700 words.”
And my second hit was in tune with this. “The English language owes a great debt to Shakespeare. He invented over 1700 of our common words.” 1700 seems to be a common estimate. In fact, you even find it on the web pages of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. But my third hit is not in line with this. “Shakespeare introduced nearly 3,000 words.” In fact, it doesn’t take long to find wild variation. “Shakespeare invented a quarter of our language.” Given that Shakespeare only wrote about 20,000 different words in total, and that the English language contains at least several hundred thousand words, this is simply ridiculous. But it doesn’t stop there. “Shakespeare invented half the words in the English language.”
And we even see, “Shakespeare is our language.” You may be thinking this is largely the tendency of the internet towards exaggeration. What about hard-nosed academics? Let’s take a look. Here is a quotation from 2012. “That Shakespeare invented– or at least successfully promoted– more new English words than anyone else in history is a truth universally acknowledged.” Maybe this is an ironic statement, but in a footnote, the author claims it’s probably true, though acknowledges that some of the claims are exaggerated. But has anyone actually tried to count Shakespeare’s neologisms? Not really. And what of other writers? Before we declare Shakespeare superior, shouldn’t we check?
Aside from trying to determine what the truth of Shakespeare’s neologisms might be, there is also the issue here of why people are generally pumping up the numbers and exaggerating Shakespeare’s contribution to English so much. We will deal with the first issue in the rest of this talk and the second issue in a later talk. If we want to pursue neologisms in Shakespeare, what might be candidates? There are a number of ways forward. One is to take the 1,502 words recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary as being first cited by Shakespeare. This, in fact, is probably where that 1,700 number for Shakespeare’s neologisms comes from.
As the Oxford English Dictionary editors improve the dictionary, that number has shrunk to the current 1,502. It must be stressed that the Oxford English Dictionary editors were not guaranteeing that the earliest citation of a particular word, a first citation, is actually the earliest possible example. Rather, they only commit themselves to providing an example of an early citation. Nevertheless, it seems a reasonable starting point not least because these first citations have been taken by many as the first examples of words, in other words, as neologisms. It is only very recently that resources have been available for us to check the status of neologisms whether earlier examples can be found.
Actually, I’m essentially referring to one resource, Early English Books Online, and in particular, the fully searchable text creation partnership version EEBO-TCP. You all know all about this from last week. So far, on the Encyclopedia of Shakespeare’s Language Project, we have checked about 1,000 entries. If the current pattern continues, less than a quarter of those 1,502 entries can reasonably be attributed to Shakespeare. That’s under 400 words. Are you disappointed to hear this? In fact, for an author to coin any words is pretty amazing, and if it is really something of the order of 400, that is remarkable. However, even a number like 400 must be taken with a lot of caution. Let me explain.
What are the issues with giving numbers concerning neologisms? Well, perhaps the key one is how do we know that Shakespeare actually coined it? Was it simply a first recording of a particular word, most likely from speech? Among candidates for Shakespeare neologisms we have the word “down staires” originally an open compound. We also have the first instance of a word “incarnadine” as a verb, a word you may remember from week one. Now with “downstairs,” I would hazard a guess that it is a recording of what was in the spoken language at the time. It is quite a mundane item. It is probably a development of down the stairs. Over time, and with repetition, it contracted to “downstairs.”
It is difficult to see what might motivate Shakespeare to coin a word like this. On the other hand, “incarnadine” serves a particular function as a verb in its context. Where it is to do with making the mutinous seas red. It is quite easy to see what might motivate Shakespeare to coin this neologism. Know what I’m doing here is engaging in interpretation, making a judgement about whether Shakespeare was motivated to coin a word. There is nothing absolute about neologisms. They are, at least partly, a matter of interpretation. Another issue concerns borrowings.
If a word is a new word in English, having been borrowed from another language, we may wish to count, add it, that as a neologism even though it is not actually a new word formation. So we need to make a judgement about whether a word is a new borrowing. That is far from easy. The word “acerbic is first cited in a text by Shakespeare. It is borrowing from Latin. However, it was used in mixed English-Latin text before Shakespeare. So does it count as an English neologism for Shakespeare or not? Finally, is a candidate for a neologism actually just a nonce word? Compare “allottery” and “domineering,” both Shakespeare first citations.
“Allottery” was used in a text by Shakespeare, but then it disappeared. In contrast, “domineering” steadily expanded its usage after Shakespeare. So presumably, we would discount “allottery” and count “domineering.” I have addressed the issue of Shakespeare coining a huge number of words. I did this by taking first citations from the Oxford English Dictionary and then looking for earlier datings in EEBO-TCP. Broadly speaking, I concluded that he was prolific in terms of coining words but not at the level people think he is. At most, the number of coinages is less than a quarter of what most people say it is. But giving a number is never going to be a straightforward thing.
Establishing a neologism is always going to be more a guess than a certainty, particularly with respect to the issue of whether we are actually looking at a first recording rather than a neologism.

The question of whether Shakespeare coined a huge number of words that became part of the English language has answers scattered around the internet. Moreover, those answers readily give precise numbers about how many words Shakespeare coined. The problem is that these guesstimates are wildly off the mark. Academic work on the issue is generally lacking, or lacks anything precise.

A starting point for pursuing the answer to this question could be to look at the words in the Oxford English dictionary that have no earlier citation (quotation) than that of Shakespeare. This gives us just over 1500. We can then check those words for earlier uses, or antedatings, using the mighty EEBO-TCP.

I have been doing exactly this with my colleagues on the Encyclopedia of Shakespeare’s Language Project. We have not quite arrived at the end of this project, but we are sufficiently far advanced for me to predict the result with reasonable accuracy. I will do this in the video-talk!

However, even if we can arrive at a list of words in the English language that seem to have Shakespeare as their earliest citation, there are still problems. How do we know that Shakespeare actually created it? Perhaps it was simply a recording of something in the spoken language of the time. How do we know that it is not simply a nonce word?

In the upcoming talks on CQPweb, we will show you how to use CQPweb to search for words (and thus antedatings) yourselves. For now, write down any thoughts you have regarding Shakespeare’s neologisms in the comments.

This article is from the free online

Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now