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Friday, August 8, 2014

Mythbusting: Sorry, no, Shakespeare did NOT "invent" this word

As a word lover, you no doubt come across this claim often: "Shakespeare invented this word/phrase".

"Cool," you probably think, "that Shakespeare was one smart dude with the words thing".

Me? *head explodes, jumps up and down* (as they say on twitter): "No he DIDN'T!!"

This persistent myth drives me CRAZY.

These claims are all over the place. Here's the latest one I've come across, and, lo, it has the imprimatur (the internetatur?) of the mighty TED, so it must be true:

A short list of verbs invented by the Bard:


Shakespeare also minted new metaphors, many now cliches, but fresh in his time:

it’s Greek to me
played fast and loose
slept not one wink
seen better days
knit your brows
have your teeth set on edge

Here's another paragraph claiming that every boldfaced word was coined by the Bard:

You cannot ignore him. He’s got you surrounded. You may think this claim baseless, perhaps even laughable, but he’s there at your elbow. Daily, he jumps trippingly off your tongue. He’s present when you wake at dawn and when the moonbeam slips through your window at night. You may chance upon him in the bedroom. You bump into him at the cinema. He’s there when you’re lonely; he’s there when you’re gloomy. That love letter? His idea. When your account dwindles and you go on a rant, think of him. The soft-hearted know him, and so does your hardhearted employer. Embrace this idea. It’s not just skim milk.

Great. If only it were true.

Shakespeare did not in fact coin most of those words.

The source of this myth seems to be a Merriam-Webster 1998 publication Coined by Shakespeare: Words & Meanings First Penned by the Bard, by Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless, from which the writer of the above paragraph drew his inspiration.

Here's the problem. The authors of this book seem to have looked at every entry in the  Oxford English Dictionary 2nd edition for which Shakespeare provided the first quotation and come to the rather naive conclusion that this meant Shakespeare invented those words (or gave them a new meaning).

Of course this is not the case. There are two problems with concluding that Shakespeare was so prolific a wordsmith, based on his presence in the OED

1) Back in the 1880s, when the OED started publishing, Shakespeare was the most easily accessible source of a lot of evidence of 16th-century English.  Since then, much more research has been done on Early Modern English, and many more texts have become available, so that as the OED editors proceed at their majestic pace to revise the dictionary, many of the words whose earliest attestation was previously from Shakespeare have now been antedated, sometimes by more than a century.

But, and this is very important, most of the OED has not been revised. In the 3rd edition online, some of the entries, like “moonbeam,” have been updated with an antedating since the Merriam-Webster book came out. This will more than likely happen to many, perhaps most, of the words currently having a first quotation from Shakespeare, as revision proceeds on the dictionary.

It's essential, when you're looking at an OED online entry, to pay attention to the note to the right of the headword, which tells you how up to date (or not) the entry is. For instance, at "arouse", the note says "This entry has not yet been fully updated (first published 1885)."

At present, M-R and A-Alz, roughly, have been revised. Am-L and S-Z, roughly, have not been revised. Some words scattered around the alphabet within the unrevised letters have been revised; for instance, the verb "drug" was revised in 2009, and Shakespeare is indeed still the first attestation.But it is very risky indeed to make claims about Shakespeare “coining” the words for which he is the first evidence if they are in the unrevised stretches of the alphabet.

2) Even those words for which Shakespeare is the first written attestation as far as our most up-to-date scholarship reveals may not have been coined by him. Many  were probably kicking around Elizabethan English before he set them on paper.

That others should be on these lists or in the Merriam-Webster book at all mystifies me, since even in the unrevised edition of the OED, they were not the first attestation of the word or meaning. “Elbow” has been in the English language since Anglo-Saxon times, and even “at your elbow” to mean “nearby” is first attested in 1548, before Shakespeare was born. An expression for which the OED does have a first attestation from Shakespeare is “up to one’s elbows,” but since this is in an unrevised part of the dictionary, it may well yet be antedated.

For the record, I have listed below the words or meanings of words that are first exemplified by Shakespeare in the revised parts of the OED. Note how many of them are not part of common parlance, paying attention to the specific sense in which the word is illustrated by Shakespeare. They really don't have the makings of a "Gosh gee whillikers did you know that Shakespeare invented the words pullet sperm and nook-shotten?" piece for endless retweeting.  If anything, it's striking how few of these words and usages are part of everyday English.

One thing that is clear is that Shakespeare was a fan of verbs created from nouns and adjectives (yes I know I harp on this, oh wait, "harp" is another one...):
portcullis, muddy, palate, pander, porter, prerogative, prologue

Please do not repeat this "coined by Shakespeare" cliché, and if you're an editor, beware of anyone who does.

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List of words with first attestations from Shakespeare in newly revised OED. Words first, followed by senses of words.

acture The process of acting; action. Louers Complaint 1609
affecting Using affectation or pretentious style; = affected adj. 3. Romeo & Juliet 1597
affectioned Affected in style or behaviour; full of affectation. Twelfth Night 1615
allicholly = melancholy n. Cf. allicholly adj. Merry Wives of Windsor 1615
malefaction Evildoing; an instance of evildoing, a criminal act. Hamlet 1604
mangling That mangles, in the senses of mangle v. Venus & Adonis 1593
meditance Meditation. Two Noble Kinsmen 1624
militarist A soldier or warrior; a person who studies military phenomena or history. Also: person having militaristic attitudes and ideals. All's Well that ends Well 1615
minutely That occurs every minute, or minute by minute. Macbeth 1615
misadventured Unfortunate, hapless. In later use also: misguided. Romeo & Juliet 1599
misbecomingly Unbecomingly, unfittingly. Two Noble Kinsmen 1624
mistership Compositorial misreading of mistress-ship n. Titus Andronicus 1615
mockable Worthy of, or exposed to, mockery or derision. As you like It 1615
morris A board game played between two players, each with a number (usually nine) of pebbles… Midsummer Night's Dream 1600
moy App.: a coin of an imaginary type. Henry V 1615
muddy To confuse or muddle (a person, the mind); to render (a thing) more complex, to make… Hamlet 1604
multipotent Having much power; very powerful. Now rare. Troilus & Cressida 1609
muset A gap in a hedge or fence through which hares, rabbits, or other animals may pass; (also)… Venus & Adonis 1594
nayword A password, watchword; a catchphrase. Obs. rare. Merry Wives 1615
near-legged Of a horse: moving with the legs close together (perh.: knock-kneed). Cf. near adv. 11. Taming of Shrew 1615
night-walking That walks or goes about at night. Richard III 1597
noncome A state of bewilderment or insanity. Much Ado about Nothing 1600
non-regardance Failure or refusal to regard something. Twelfth Night 1615
nook-shotten Having many corners, angles, or projections; having an irregular form. Henry V 1615
obduracy The state or quality of being obdurate; stubbornness, resistance to all entreaty; persistence in wrongdoing or evil. Henry IV, Pt. 2 1600
obscenely In an obscene manner; offensively, repulsively, horribly; indecently, lewdly. Love's Labour's Lost 1598
off-cap intr. To take off or doff the cap, in reverence or respect to (a person). Othello 1615
omittance = omission n. As you like It 1615
opposeless Not to be opposed; unopposable; irresistible. King Lear 1608
out-breast intr. Prob.: to outdo another in singing high or loudly. Two Noble Kinsmen 1624
outdare trans. To overcome by daring; to outbrave, defy. Now rare. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
outlustre trans. To surpass in lustre; to outshine. Cymbeline 1615
outpeer trans. To outrival; to surpass in excellence. Cymbeline 1615
outstay trans. To stay beyond the end or limit of (one's expected or permitted time, an event… As you like It 1615
outswear trans. To outdo in swearing; to swear more or more coarsely than; to overcome or get the better of by swearing. Love's Labour's Lost 1598
outsweeten trans. To surpass in sweetening or in sweetness. Cymbeline 1615
outswell trans. To surpass in or by swelling; to surpass in size, quantity, or degree; to swell out more than. Troilus & Cressida 1609
out-villain trans. To surpass in villainy. All's Well that ends Well 1615
overbeat trans. To beat (a person or thing) down; to overpower, overwhelm. Now rare. Coriolanus 1615
overdyed That is dyed with a second colour; dyed too deeply. Also fig. Winter's Tale 1615
overeaten That has been eaten away on all sides; nibbled all over. Chiefly fig. Troilus & Cressida 1609
overleaven trans. To leaven too much; to cause to rise or swell excessively. Chiefly fig. Hamlet 1604
overmounting That mounts or rises too high. Henry VI, Pt. 1 1615
over-picture trans. To surpass in depiction; to depict or describe with exaggeration. Antony & Cleopatra 1615
overpost trans. To cover (ground) quickly and easily (fig. in quot. 1600). Henry IV, Pt. 2 1600
overpower trans. To defeat or overcome with superior power or force; to reduce to submission. Richard II 1597
over-roasted That has been roasted too much or for too long. Taming of Shrew 1615
overteemed Excessively productive or fertile; put under strain by excessive breeding or production. Hamlet 1604
palate trans. To perceive or try with the palate, to taste; to gratify the palate with; to enjoy the taste of, relish. Also fig. Troilus & Cressida 1609
pander trans. To act as a pander to; to minister to the gratification of (another's desire or lust). Also fig. Obs. Hamlet 1615
parti- having a parti-coat. Love's Labour's Lost 1598
pauser A person who pauses; a person who stops something. Macbeth 1615
pausingly With a pause or pauses; haltingly, hesitantly. Henry VIII 1623
paying back The action of repaying something; an instance of this. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
pelting The action of pelt v.; beating with missiles; persistent striking or beating; an instance of this. King Lear 1608
pensived Saddened. Louers Complaint 1609
phantasim A fantastic being; a fantasizer, a fantast. Love's Labour's Lost 1598
piglike In a manner resembling or suggestive of that of a pig. Two Noble Kinsmen 1624
pignut The sweetish edible tuber of Conopodium majus, a fine-leaved plant of the family Apiaceae… Tempest 1615
plantage Vegetation, herbage. Obs. Troilus & Cressida 1609
pleached Chiefly poet. Fenced, bordered, or overarched with pleached boughs. Much Ado about Nothing 1600
pleading That pleads; esp. entreating, beseeching, imploring. Venus & Adonis 1594
plighter A person who makes a pledge or promise (fig. in quot. 1616). Antony & Cleopatra 1615
plumpy Characterized by plumpness; plump. Antony & Cleopatra 1615
portcullis trans. To furnish with a portcullis; to close with a portcullis; (fig.) to close securely. Richard II 1597
porter trans. with it and intr. To act as a gatekeeper or porter. Macbeth 1615
preceptial Consisting of or conveying precepts; instructive. Much Ado about Nothing 1600
precipitance = precipitancy n. 2. Two Noble Kinsmen 1624
preformed Formed or shaped beforehand; formed prior to some subsequent operation. Cf. preform v. Julius Caesar 1615
prerogative trans. (in pass.). To endow (a person) with a prerogative, right, or privilege. Othello 1615
priceless Beyond price; having an inestimable value; invaluable. Occas. also: having no market price; not obtainable for money. Lucrece 1594
primogenitive = primogeniture n. 3. Obs. rare. Troilus & Cressida 1615
primy That is in its prime; indicative of (a person's) prime. Hamlet 1604
printless Making or leaving no print or trace. Now rare. Tempest 1615
prizer A person who fights a prize (prize n.); a prizefighter. As you like It 1615
prologue trans. To introduce; to precede (something) as an introduction; to come before or in front of. All's Well that ends Well 1615
prompture Prompting, suggestion, instigation. Measure for Measure 1615
pudency Modesty, bashfulness, or reticence; embarrassment; an instance or expression of this. Cymbeline 1615
pugging Of uncertain meaning; perhaps: ‘that pulls or tugs, thieving’. Winter's Tale 1615
pulsidge Humorous blunder for pulse n. Henry IV, Pt. 2 1600
pupil age In early use: the period during which one is a pupil, minority. In later use: the age or… Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
pupil-like In the manner of a pupil. Obs. Richard II 1597
purr An act of purring; the low vibrating sound made by a cat, usually when pleased or contented. Also: any sound resembling this. All's Well that ends Well 1615
reclusive Characterized by seclusion from society or human interaction, esp. as part of a religious discipline. Much Ado about Nothing 1600
recollected Gathered painstakingly; studied, artificial; practised, refined. Obs. Twelfth Night 1615
remediate = remedial adj. 1a. King Lear 1608
repine The action of repining, discontent; an instance of this, a complaint. Venus & Adonis 1593
revengive Vengeful, vindictive. King Lear 1608
reverb trans. = reverberate v. 4c. King Lear 1608
revolving Of the mind, thoughts, etc.: turning something over, considering, actively… Richard III 1597
rondure Roundness; (also) a circle or round object. Cf. roundure n. Sonnets 1609
rubious Ruby-coloured. Twelfth Night 1615
rumourer A person who spreads rumours. Coriolanus 1615

abhorring The condition or state of being abhorrent. Obs. rare. Antony & Cleopatra 1615
acorned Of a boar or hog: fed or filled with acorns. Obs. Cymbeline 1615
air Without qualification or following construction. Obs. Winter's Tale 1615
all hid The game of hide-and-seek. Also as int.: the call used in the game (see note). Love's Labour's Lost 1598
making The material out of which something may be made; the potentiality of becoming something.… Henry VIII 1623
malignancy Malign or baleful character; unpropitiousness; great injuriousness. Obs. Twelfth Night 1615
Tempest 1615
mangling That mangles, in the senses of mangle v. Venus & Adonis 1593
manly Excellently. Cf. bravely adv. 3. Obs. rare. Macbeth 1615
manner Forms of behaviour exemplifying politeness or respect. Now only in to make (also do) one's manners… Taming of Shrew 1615
march intr. Mil. Used in the imperative as a word of command. Also march on. Also in extended… Richard II 1597
mask Theatre. An image of a face worn by an actor; (Classical Theatre) a hollow figure of a… Midsummer Night's Dream 1600
meeting That meets or comes together. Venus & Adonis 1593
mercury A person entrusted with messages between parties, esp. in a clandestine love affair; a go-between. Merry Wives of Windsor 1602
merit In clauses with as or than. Much Ado about Nothing 1600
mettle In an animal, esp. a horse: liveliness, eagerness, friskiness. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
mince trans. Usu. in negative contexts: to moderate or restrain (one's language) so as to keep… Henry V 1615
mincing The action or habit of speaking or acting in an affectedly refined or elegant manner. In… Henry VIII 1623
mingle fig. To put together so as to make one; to pool. Obs. rare. Cymbeline 1615
miracle trans. (refl.) To reveal by a miracle. Obs. nonce-use. Cymbeline 1615
misplaced That has been put in a wrong place; devoted to or bestowed on a wrong or… King John 1615
moral Import, meaning, significance. Obs. rare. Taming of Shrew 1615
mountain squire
Henry V 1615
mountainous Resembling a mountain or mountains in size or shape; huge, enormous. Also fig. Coriolanus 1615
muster trans. Perh.: to exemplify (a particular skill or quality). Obs. rare. All's Well that ends Well 1615
nave The navel. In recent use only with allusion to quot. 1616. Macbeth 1615
neither With negative implied contextually. Obs. Comedy of Errors 1615
new-fallen Of a right, property, etc.: that has newly fallen or passed to a person. Obs. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
Midsummer Night's Dream 1615
Othello 1615
nighted Dark or black as night. Freq. fig. Hamlet 1604
night-fly A flying insect which is active at night. Henry IV, Pt. 2 1600
obsequious Dutiful in performing obsequies or showing respect for the dead; appropriate to obsequies. Obs. Titus Andronicus 1594
obstruction The action or an act of preventing, impeding, or hindering the motion or passage of a… Twelfth Night 1615
off Naut. At a distance from the land; offshore. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
offering That offers (in various senses): see offer v. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
old Wearing old clothes, shabby. Obs. rare. Taming of Shrew 1615
old In ancient times, long ago. Pericles 1609
King Lear 1608
out-breast intr. Prob.: to outdo another in singing high or loudly. Two Noble Kinsmen 1624
outswell trans. To surpass in or by swelling; to surpass in size, quantity, or degree; to swell out more than. Troilus & Cressida 1609
Troilus & Cressida 1609
overteeming Excessively fertile or productive; too active or vigorous. Hamlet 1603
paddle trans. To finger idly or playfully; to fondle. Now arch. and rare. Winter's Tale 1615
pagan euphem. A prostitute. Obs. Henry IV, Pt. 2 1600
at pause at (also in) pause: temporarily inactive or motionless; not proceeding; hesitating… Hamlet 1604
pawn = gage n. 2. Obs. Richard II 1597
pebbled Covered, strewn, or heaped with pebbles; pebbly. Sonnets 1609
persistency The quality, fact, or condition of being persistent; esp. firmness or obstinacy in adhering… Henry IV, Pt. 2 1600
place In Falconry: the high position or pitch to which a falcon or other bird of prey… Macbeth 1615
to play off trans. colloq. To drain or finish (a drink, esp. an alcoholic one). Obs. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
pleading That pleads; esp. entreating, beseeching, imploring. Venus & Adonis 1594
plough To furrow (a surface) with a ploughing action; to tear, scratch up, as if by ploughing.… Titus Andronicus 1594
porch fig. Hamlet 1603
potent Of an argument, idea, theory, etc.: cogent, effective, convincing. Troilus & Cressida 1609
prenzie Prob. a compositorial misreading of precise adj. Measure for Measure 1615
presage A presentiment, a foreboding; a prophetic or anticipatory perception of the future. Now rare. Richard II 1597
prime Of a thought, aim, etc.: principal, chief, main; of primary importance; most valuable. Also in extended use. Tempest 1615
primy That is in its prime; indicative of (a person's) prime. Hamlet 1604
I prithee =. Henry IV, Pt. 1 1598
prodigal Having or providing a lavish amount of a resource or quality; generously or… Love's Labour's Lost 1598
prodigal A person who has lived a reckless or extravagant life away from home, but subsequently… Merchant of Venice 1600
promise intr. To appear likely to turn out in a specified way; to encourage expectation. Usually with adverb, as fair, well, etc. All's Well that ends Well 1615
proportion An allotted portion (of land, etc.). Now hist. and rare. Henry V 1615
pudency Modesty, bashfulness, or reticence; embarrassment; an instance or expression of this. Cymbeline 1615
pugging Of uncertain meaning; perhaps: ‘that pulls or tugs, thieving’. Winter's Tale 1615
pullet sperm (prob. chiefly after Shakespeare's use: see quot. 1616) eggs. Merry Wives of Windsor 1615
punch To pierce, cut, or perforate with or as with a punch (punch n. 3); to make a hole or holes in. Richard III 1597
puzzle To perplex, bewilder, confound (the brain, mind, will, etc.); (also) to apply (one's… Hamlet 1603
quail A courtesan. Also: a prostitute. Obs. Troilus & Cressida 1609
queen With it. Of a woman: to be a queen; to act or rule as queen; to behave in a queenly… Winter's Tale 1615
Cymbeline 1615
quietus A release or respite from life; an ending of life, death; something that causes death. Hamlet 1603
ranged Systematically arranged; ordered. Obs. Antony & Cleopatra 1615
rank Of a payment, financial gain, etc.: high or excessive. In later use only in… Hamlet 1604
rash Urgent, pressing. Obs. rare. Troilus & Cressida 1609
Richard III 1597
re trans. Used as a humorous threat to a musician: to give ‘re’ to. Cf. re n. Romeo & Juliet 1597
reel trans. To stagger drunkenly through or along (a street). Obs. rare. Antony & Cleopatra 1615
remain Of an impression, object of perception, etc.: to stay with a person; to stick in the mind. Timon of Athens 1615
reservation The action or fact of reserving (for oneself or another) a right, entitlement, privilege… King Lear 1608
return To travel back along. Obs. rare. Richard III 1597
right Of a person: judging, thinking, or acting in accordance with truth or the facts of… Henry IV, Pt. 2 1600
rival With present participles forming adjectives, as rival-hating, etc. Richard II 1597
rivet With to or into. Merchant of Venice 1600
rub trans. To impede, hinder. Cf. rub n. 3. Obs. rare. King Lear 1608
ruffle Ostentatious bustle or display. rare. Louers Complaint 1609
ruin Any ruined thing, situation, or (esp.) person. King John 1615

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.