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Shakespeare’s neologisms

Watch Jonathan Culpeper explore the truth behind the idea that Shakespeare invented a huge number of new words.

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.

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Shakespeare's Language: Revealing Meanings and Exploring Myths

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