Exploring the Language and Invented Words of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries
How Many Words did Shakespeare Invent?
This represents the total number of words currently accounted to be invented by Shakespeare.
This tabulation is the result of a months-long effort of painstaking research to come up with, for the first time ever, a reasonably accurate sum of the total number of words which can actually be attributed to having been invented by William Shakespeare.
Let us define what is included and not included on this list:
What is included in the list:
Non-compound words whose earliest appearance in the written English record is in a work attributed to William Shakespeare.
What is NOT included:
1. Compound words.
The topic of compound words is fraught with difficulties. Our ancient authors combined words to create compound words and expressions at an astounding rate. Any attempt to include them all in a list of this sort results in the number of compound words overwhelming the number of non-compound words. If we include any compound words, than we have to include them all, and the list of invented words becomes meaningless.
Even defining a compound word can be an exercise in uncertainty; leaping-house and curious-knotted are clearly compound words; but what about upstairs, churchlike and demi-puppet?
Well, a decision had to be made and make one I did: our rule will be that if a potential compound word was clearly the result of combining two halves, each of which existed as an actual word in its own right aound the turn of the 17th century, then it will count as a compound word, and not be encluded in the primary list.
Thus, the latter words in the paragraph above are not included in the primary list. Here is a list of what we may think of as prefixes and suffixes, but were in fact their own words: after-, all-, back-, below-, demi-, down-, fore-, ill-, -like, out-, over-, self-, under-, up-. Words that use any of these items as prefixes or suffixes are not included in the primary list.
However, you may believe some of these words should count in the primary list. So, words that have these prefixes and suffixes will be tabulated in a separate list, to be completed in the very near future.
2. Words that previously existed, but were used by Shakespeare for the first time in a different part of speech.
For example, if avouch existed pre-Shakespeare as a verb, and he was the first author to employ avouch as a noun, should avouch be included as an "invented" Shakespeare word? I choose, "no"; however, I will eventually create a separate list of words that satisfy this category, and you may decide for yourself the degree to which you want to count them as "invented" Shakespeare words.
3. Previously existing words which Shakespeare gave a new meaning to.
A project to determine all the words that belong to this category would be so large and so time-consuming to prepare, that I am not even planning to undergo it. The OED differentiates between shades of meaning that are so incremental that it becomes impossible to determine the degree of meaningfulness to say that Shakespeare used such-and-such a word with a particular meaning first.
SUMMARY of RESULTS SO FAR
(1) The word list will be a disappointment to those who like to credit Shakespeare with a wide variety of "new" words that remain in common modern use. The reality is, the bard's contribution to the English language is much more significant when it comes to phrases and expressions, rather than to "words". But here too, we will find that much that has been attributed to Shakespeare appeared in the written record prior to Shakespeare.
(2) On the other, much ignored are the numerous collocations that Shakespeare created that have become an important part of our language; a collocation is what we might refer to as a natural pairing of or combination of words that don't necessarily qualify as an "expression"; for example, Shakespeare was the first to describe a departure as being abrupt, or an appointment as being missed.
DID SHAKESPEARE REALLY INVENT WORDS?
Yes and no; on the one hand - and contrary to public belief - Shakespeare did not “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. In this fashion, Shakespeare did invent numerous words.
Shakespeare also can be credited with giving the English language new words by (a) adopting foreign words into written English, and (b) creating nonsense words and malapropisms.
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.
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.