Shakespeare Invented Words Project

The Shakespeare New Word Project at ElizabethanDrama.org

Go to the Master List of Words “Invented” by Shakespeare, and links to detailed tables.
The Concentrated List: Still-Common Words Invented by Shakespeare.
Common Words Commonly but Wrongly Attributed to Shakespeare.
Why did Shakespeare invent words?
Methodology.

WELCOME to the Shakespeare Invented Word Project Homepage. In these pages, we will record our research efforts as we attempt to accurately catalogue all of the words that could be considered “new” when Shakespeare employed them in one of his plays or poems.

Our project began in December 2018; we will be working through the alphabet one letter at a time. Our no-doubt overly-optimistic goal is to be done by the end of 2019. We have completed work on the letter A, and are now well into the letter B.

DID SHAKESPEARE REALLY INVENT WORDS?

Contrary to public belief, Shakespeare did not really “invent” words, in the sense that he, for example, decided he needed a word that means “cow”, but with four syllables, and so out of his imagination came up with the word “grabofillbert”. Rather, he adapted old words by fitting them with prefixes and suffixes, or by combining them, to give them a new sense.

We do use the word “invented” on this site, for two reasons: (1) it is a handy short-hand way to get the attention of internet researchers, and (2) to be gently ironic.

Why did Shakespeare invent words? Because (1) he needed a word; (2) he would have been in a hurry to complete any play he was working on, due to the publics great demand for new material, and (3) he did not have a dictionary or thesaurus to help. Indeed, the first dictionaries had not yet been written in the early 17th century.

NO ACCURATE INFORMATION AVAILABLE ANYWHERE (ESPECIALLY ON THE INTERNET)

In this section of our website, we will be presenting what we hope will be the most accurate list of words “invented” by William Shakespeare available anywhere – and also lists of words wrongly attributed to him!

The internet is filled with misinformation regarding words first created by the Bard.

The most persistent of the “facts” is that Shakespeare invented 1700 words; the number 1700 has taken off like a virus, and is casually tossed around by many individuals writing on the subject, despite the fact that there seems to be no particular authority for this number.

Several websites list some number of words attributed to Shakespeare; they all include words that even a bit of research would show do not belong there (they having been used previously to Shakespeare, and with the same meaning as Shakespeare used). They also mislead the inattentive reader, by failing to distinguish between

(1) words actually coined by Shakespeare, and
(2) words he adopted by using them
     (a) in a new part of speech (e.g. using a traditional noun as a verb), or
     (b) to mean something different.

Some sites even commingle Shakespeare’s original words with words they claim he “popularized”, whatever that means!

Undoubtedly the reason for these errors is that the venerable Oxford English Dictionary is believed to be, frankly, infallible. If you look up the word anchovy, bedroom, or hint, for example, the earliest citation listed is from the works of Shakespeare. However, a bit of research proves that the words all appeared in print well before Shakespeare ever even began writing plays and poems (considered to be around 1589-1590).

This is no fault of the OED’s; most of the OED’s entries have not been revisited in more than a century. The editors of the OED are in the early stages of a project to revise and update the dictionary, but this monumental task will take years, if not decades to complete.

THE CREATION OF THE OED

Indeed, the creation of the OED (a fantastic story, told brilliantly by Simon Winchester in his 1999 book, The Professor and the Madman) ensured it would be far from perfect: its words and citations were provided over a period of decades by a world-wide army of volunteers, reading random old books and writing down words and quotes whenever a particular word or phrase caught their fancy. Such a subjective and helter-skelter approach was bound to be error-filled.

Frustrated by a lack of precise and correct information, your editor has begun a lengthy project to research and determine as accurate a list of words first used by Shakespeare available anywhere ever.

In this list, we will differentiate between the different types of “new” words Shakespeare coined, by dividing the words into three Classes:

1. Class 1 words: words that make their literal first appearance in English writing in a work by Shakespeare;
2. Class 2 words: words that appeared prior to Shakespeare, but which he was the first to use in a different part of speech (for example, to take a noun like elbow and use it a verb); and
3. Class 3 words: previously used words that Shakespeare used in the same part of speech, but to which he gave a new meaning.

Click here to see the master list of words Shakespeare created, and links to detailed tables for all words, grouped by letter.
Click here to read why Shakespeare invented words.
Click here to learn about the methodology your humble servant is using for this project.