More than 400 years since he shuffled off this mortal coil, Shakespeare continues to live a vibrant life not just through the enduring legacy of his plays and poems as a whole, but in his contributions to the English language. Putting a precise number on these contributions is complicated by the way the first modern dictionaries—including the OED and Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language—emphasized finding examples in the established classics, causing a kind of selection bias for the Bard’s work.
So, how many words and phrases did Shakespeare coin and how many did he “simply” capture? It’s logically impossible to be sure, but either way he is popularly and properly given credit in some way for over one-thousand words and hundreds of common phrases still used today.
In order to manage this linguistic menagerie, I’m going to focus on just one play—my own favorite—and arguably Shakespeare’s most verbally inventive: Hamlet. Specifically, I want to share some words and phrases that made their written debut in this most melancholy of tragedies: some because you might be surprised at their origin, others because they are ripe for being revived by intrepid listeners like you.
For example, in our age of breathless social media tweeting and facebooking, we have plenty of opportunities to make pithy observations about our favorite excitements, or things that excite us, without resisting as poor Hamlet felt compelled to when he observed:
“How stand I then
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep…”
(Luckily for the limits of my own vocabulary’s titillation, linguistic archaeology gives and takes away: for many years the word aroused, to excite, was attributed to Hamlet, but has since been downgraded as a mistaken reading of “a roused” as in “a roused vengeance.”)
Or how about bringing some color to the climate change discussion by referring to climatures (regions) as Horatio does when he notes that “…heaven and earth together demonstrated / Unto our climatures and countrymen”? In fact, that same short speech is full of reading riches relevant to the politically infused (and confused) discussions we see everywhere today, including the first recorded use of mind’s eye and the evocative gibber (or jibber), to speak inarticulately and non-sensically, a description Shakespeare intended to invoke the image of an ape but all too apt for some politicians and popular personalities today.
If you’d like to follow in the Bard’s footsteps and coin some words of your own, you could do worse than glomming onto his habit of using the prefix un- in unexpected places. In Hamlet alone there are dozens of first-uses of that technique from unhand (“unhand me, gentlemen / By heaven I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!” Hamlet demands) and unbated (undiminished), to words we just don’t hear enough today such as unpregnant (not properly stimulated—think of the less common “unpregnant pause”) or unsinewed, unsifted and unweeded, all used in Hamlet for the first time in their figurative senses.
Shakespeare is also credited with the first recorded use of many now common phrases beyond “to be, or not to be,” including: The play’s the thing, neither a borrower nor a lender be, more honoured in the breach (than the observance) and the shuffling off of the mortal coil I opened this segment with. But some of his less common observations strike me as more useful than ever: “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t” feels ripe for our times; “An old man is twice a child” runs through my mind every day; or perhaps we can bring back “galls his kibe” (literally to tread on one’s heels, to follow too closely behind, as social media creepers —and Hollywood moguls and talk show hosts—are too often wont to do).
But be sure you are wielding this rich, colorful vocabulary appropriately. In Hamlet we find a phrase both common and commonly used wrongly. That “honor in the breach” (not breech, which is an evocative but different idea entirely) Hamlet refers to is an observation about those who are “to the manner born” – as in mind your manners, not manor as in mansions or noble estates, despite the popular 70s BBC tv sitcom with the punny title.
And while baited breath is first found in The Merchant of Venice, not Hamlet, I’ll take this opportunity to note that the bating of the breath here is related to the unbated I mentioned earlier, as in blunted or shallow–basically holding one’s breath—not baited, which invokes a different, and wholly more olfactory image.
Finally, sometimes you just need something new for our daily playing of the dozens, and while there are many compilations of Shakespearean insults and even web sites that will generate new Shakespeare-like examples for you, there’s nothing like the real thing. In Hamlet alone there are numerous insults to entice your revivalist spirit, such as periwig-pated (not limited to the wig-wearing, but anyone dressed up in costume or inappropriate finery) or John-a-Dreams (an ineffectual dreamer, prone to inaction).