John Larrysson Column: Shakespeare's New Words

Shakespeare's England was very different from today. The English language had just become the language of power in England. For centuries the colonial kings of England spoke French. Suddenly, after a bit of fighting called the War of the Roses (1455 - 1485), new English-speaking kings & queens came to power. People started using English in courts of law, in government meetings, in literature and in science. Before Shakespeare's time English was the language of the poor and the king spoke French. That social divide had changed violently. Shakespeare wrote plays for both nobles and commoners who spoke the same language, English.

audio 1

The trouble Shakespeare had was that the English language of farmers was rich in names for things on farms, but not in words for art, law and literature. So he had to invent new phrases and words to explain his plays. He was the first person to describe a jealous person as a green-eyed monster. Many of the phrases he invented were passed into the new growing English language. Shakespeare invented words and borrowed words from other languages when he needed them. Centuries later when the Oxford English Dictionary was written, he became the most frequently quoted single author at about 33,300 quotations.

audio 2

English did not have as many words in Shakespeare's time. In all of his plays and poems he only uses about 18,000 words. Of those words, 1,700 appear to have been created by him. Actually Shakespeare's plays were just the earliest written record for many words. If they were all new words his plays would have been difficult to understand! But he did create many of those words. The words he created were then used by other people and became part of our Modern English.

audio 3

In Shakespeare's time English had no grammar textbooks. Spelling varied greatly. Many words were only used in local dialects of English. Shakespeare created new words and phrases by using nouns as verbs and using verbs as adjectives. For example, to push someone with your elbow, became the verb to elbow someone. The noun worth got a suffix and gave us the adjective worthless. Shakespeare connected words never before used together. He used uncommon words from local English dialects and popularised them. By adding prefixes and suffixes he created new words whose meaning could be understood, but had not been used before. For example, undress and employer. (un + dress and employ + er)

audio 4

The words bed and room were common. However people used the word bedchamber to refer to the room for sleeping. In the play A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare uses the word "bedroom" for the first time. However he did not mean a bedchamber, but rather room or space in someone's bed. The line is, "Then by your side no bedroom me deny" (Let me sleep beside you).

By using words in new ways Shakespeare helped turn the farmer's Middle English language into a modern language that could include beautiful poems and plays. Of course all the romance, fighting and dirty jokes in his plays did help popularise his new more expressive English language.

audio 5

by John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.