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Words Invented by Shakespeare

In honor of Shakespeare's 450th birthday, we'll look at Shakespeare's words, phrases, insults, and false friends. I bet you don't know them all.

By
Mignon Fogarty
April 25, 2014
Episode #413

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Shakespeare

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This week marked what would have been Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, so we’ll frolic through his enormous contributions to Modern English.

Some sources say that Shakespeare coined more than 1,900 English words, but that number is likely to be high. He invented many words and also came up with new meanings for old words, but those original counts are high because they come from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), whose human workers were known to favor Shakespearean texts when looking for citations. Modern searches done with computers have turned up earlier instances of some words.

For example, the word puke had long been attributed to Shakespeare, but the OED now has two earlier entries.

But don’t worry, we’re still left with many fabulous words that lexicographers credit to the Bard.

Words Invented by Shakespeare

Fans of Divergent, Shakespeare brought us the adjective dauntless by adding the -less suffix to the verb daunt. In Henry VI, Part 3, Lewis says, “Yield not thy neck to Fortune's yoke, but let thy dauntless mind still ride in triumph over all mischance.”

If you’re more of a Foreigner fan, you can thank Shakespeare for hot-blooded — and cold-blooded while you’re at it. If you liked Fergie singing about her swagger in “Boom Boom Pow” with the Black Eyed Peas, you can thank Shakespeare for that too because Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1600 has the first known written use of the word swagger, formed by adding the -er suffix to the verb swag, which meant something like “to sway without control.”

He also gave us green-eyed, as in the green-eyed monster, to describe jealousy, which is interesting because until he anointed green, yellow was the color most associated with jealousy.

Shakespeare’s Un- Words

You may have already noticed that Shakespeare liked to create words by adding suffixes such as -less and -er. Well, he was fond of prefixes too — un- in particular.

According to linguist and Shakespeare researcher David Crystal, Shakespeare is the first known source for more than 300 un- words alone.

To name just a few that will be familiar, he gave us untrained, uneducated, unhelpful, unreal, unaware, undress, and unsolicited.

He gave new meaning to the word uncomfortable, which before he used it meant something more like “inconsolable” than being a word to describe discomfort, and he also gave us the metaphorical meaning of the word unlock. Before he got ahold of it, unlock had been about physical locks and doors, but in The Merchant of Venice, he used it to mean “display,” writing about Arragon wanting to unlock his fortunes.

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