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.

Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
Episode #413



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.

False Friends

Shakespeare’s plays also have quite a few words that are known as false friends: words that mean something different today than they did in Shakespeare’s time, and these words can make reading Shakespeare confusing.

For example, today, awful means bad, but in Shakespeare’s time it meant “awe-inspiring or worthy of respect.” Awful men in Shakespeare’s plays were something completely different from awful men today.

The Bard used the word batty to mean "bat-like." It had nothing to do with the way we use the word to mean “crazy or nutty” today.

When Shakespeare called something a catastrophe, he simply meant it was the end or the conclusion. Catastrophe comes from a Greek root meaning “to turn or overturn.” Thinking of a catastrophe as a disaster is a more modern idea.

Someone who was dieting in Shakespeare’s time was eating heartily, not daintily, and fabulous meant “mythical, fabulous or invented,” not amazing or terrific. Fabulous comes from the Latin word for “fable”: fābulōsus.

The list goes on and on. One article from David Crystal lists and explains 162 different false friends in Shakespeare. Go look at it because it’s fascinating.

Famous Shakespearean Phrases

No discussion of Shakespeare would be complete without a nod to the many famous phrases we now utter without even knowing they’re from his plays. You probably know that to be or not to be is from Shakespeare, but he also gave us

  • Dead as a doornail

  • Love is blind

  • All’s well that ends well

  • Flesh and blood

  • In a pickle

  • A sorry sight

  • Lie low

  • Cruel to be kind

The list goes on and on.

Shakespearean Insults

Finally, for a little fun, I’ll end with Shakespearean insults. Shakespeare was an expert taunter. Here are some of my favorites:

From As You Like It: "I desire that we be better strangers."

From Timon of Athens: "I'll beat thee, but I should infect my hands."

From Much Ado About Nothing: Four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one.

The list of insults also goes on and on, and for more of those, I refer you to the Twitter account @WilliamHatesYou.

I’d like to thank Peter Sokolowski from Merriam-Webster for early guidance on this topic, and I’d also like to to thank the well-known and prolific linguist, David Crystal. His extensive writings about Shakespeare’s language were my sources for the majority of information in this podcast, and he has vastly more wonderful information on his website that I couldn’t even touch on here. You can find many of his articles and books at DavidCrystal.com.


cold-blooded. Oxford English Dictionary, Online. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/36105?redirectedFrom=cold-blooded#eid (accessed April 24, 2014)

Crystal, David. “Un- Finished.” Around the Globe. 17. 2001. p. 22-3. http://www.davidcrystal.com/?fileid=-4228 (accessed April 18, 2014)

Crystal, David. “Saying What Can’t Be Said.” Around the Globe. 16, 2001, p. 20-21. http://davidcrystal.com/?fileid=-4227 (accessed April 18, 2014)

Crystal, David. http://www.thinkonmywords.com/additional/p234.html?height=450&width=820. (accessed April 20, 2014).

dauntless. Oxford English Dictionary, Online. Oxford University Press.  http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/47467?redirectedFrom=dauntless#eid (accessed April 24, 2014)

Elentari. “Shakespeare’s Genius for Creating Words.” BBC website. November 29, 2010. http://news.bbc.co.uk/dna/place-lancashire/plain/A76533195 (accessed April, 24, 2014)

green-eyed. Oxford English Dictionary, Online. Oxford University Press.

http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/81188?redirectedFrom=green-eyed#eid (accessed April 24, 2014)

hot-blooded. Oxford English Dictionary, Online. Oxford University Press.  http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/88788?redirectedFrom=hot-blooded#eid (accessed April 24, 2014)

Linderman, Matt. “Shakespeare’s Word Inventions.” Signal v. Noise. September 7, 2010. https://signalvnoise.com/posts/2527-shakespeares-word-inventions (accessed April 24, 2014)

swagger. Oxford English Dictionary, Online. Oxford University Press.  http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/195354?redirectedFrom=swagger#eid (accessed April 24, 2014)

swag. Oxford English Dictionary, Online. Oxford University Press.

http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/195337#eid19494004 (accessed April 24, 2014)

unhelpful. Oxford English Dictionary, Online. Oxford University Press.  http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/214154?redirectedFrom=unhelpful#eid (accessed April 24, 2014)

unlock. Oxford English Dictionary, Online. Oxford University Press.

http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/215203?redirectedFrom=unlock#eid (accessed April 24, 2014)

unreal. Oxford English Dictionary, Online. Oxford University Press.

http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/216842?redirectedFrom=unreal#eid (accessed April 24, 2014)

unsolicited. Oxford English Dictionary, Online. Oxford University Press.

http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/218140?redirectedFrom=unsolicited#eid (accessed April 24, 2014)


Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.