How the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays changes what words he coined

September 8, 2010 | By Abraham | 6 comments

You’ve probably seen lists of all the words and phrases that Shakespeare is believed to have invented. In a post about updates to the OED, linguist David Crystal discusses how this list would be affected if we reordered Shakespeare’s work accurately:

[T]he dates of Shakespeare’s plays used by the original lexicographers are now hugely out of date. Nobody these days would place Love’s Labour’s Lost in 1588, as the OED does; most people would opt for 1593-5. Similarly, Titus Andronicus is given as 1588 (probably 1590-91) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as 1590 (probably 1594-5).

OK. So what?

The day they revise these dates, the whole of the ‘Shakespeare invented words’ industry will have to be reviewed, as in many entries the Shakespearean usage will leapfrog over another citation into second place.

For example…

We now know that several of the first recorded usages assigned to Shakespeare have been antedated. Not all are in the OED files yet. Lonely isn’t, for example. The OED still gives Coriolanus 1607 as a first use, but…Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, talks about ‘lonely ghosts’ in her Tragedie of Antonie, and that is 1592.

Of course, most of you are still sitting there saying, So what?

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6 Comments

  1. Janelle says:

    I find this fascinating. I was just talking yesterday with the students in my English composition class about the relevance that Shakespeare has to modern life. The only thing that really got their attention was talking about all the words he’s coined.

    I guess this means they were right, after all. Shakespeare is losing his competitive edge one small word at a time.

  2. Tracey says:

    Thanks for this post. I was looking for new reading material and simply cannot get thru Les Miserable(even an abridged version,) so I think I’ll pick up some Shakespeare to chew on.

  3. Sarah says:

    I did my thesis on Shakespeare’s coinages and found out early on in my research that just because the OED says he was the first to record it doesn’t make it so. But that doesn’t make what he did with the burgeoning language in England any less interesting. Janelle, encourage your students to look at those “coinages” (supposed and otherwise) and see if they can find the ways he is teaching these new words to the audiences he wrote for. He is an amazing teacher, whether or not he “invented” as many words as the OED currently credits him with inventing.

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