20 Words We Owe to Shakespeare

Getty Images/Edward Gooch
Getty Images/Edward Gooch

No high school English curriculum is complete without a mandatory dose of William Shakespeare, and no American teenager makes it to graduation without whining about how boring it is to learn about iambic pentameter. As contemporary speakers of the English language, however, they might be interested to learn how much the Bard of Avon had in common with the generations that popularized the acronyms LOL and OMG and reinvented the 1940s slang term “hipster.” Endlessly imaginative and not overly concerned with grammatical convention, Shakespeare’s scripts contain over 2200 never-before-seen words—a diverse collection of loan-words from foreign languages, compound words from existing English terms, nouns turned into verbs, and creatively applied prefixes—many of which have entered into everyday language. Here are 20 examples of words we can thank Shakespeare for.

1. Addiction: Othello, Act II, Scene II

“It is Othello's pleasure, our noble and valiant general, that, upon certain tidings now arrived, importing the mere perdition of the Turkish fleet, every man put himself into triumph; some to dance, some to make bonfires, each man to what sport and revels his addiction leads him.” – Herald

If not for that noble and valiant general and his playwright, our celebrity news coverage might be sorely lacking.

2. Arch-villain: Timon of Athens, Act V, Scene I

“You that way and you this, but two in company; each man apart, all single and alone, yet an arch-villain keeps him company.” – Timon

With the added prefix of arch-, meaning more extreme than others of the same type, Shakespeare was able to distinguish the baddest of the bad.

3. Assassination: Macbeth, Act I, Scene VII

“If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly: if the assassination could trammel up the consequence, and catch with his surcease success.” – Macbeth

Though the term “assassin” had been observed in use prior to the Scottish play, it seems apt that the work introduced yet another term for murder most foul.

4. Bedazzled: The Taming of the Shrew, Act IV, Scene V

“Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes, that have been so bedazzled with the sun that everything I look on seemeth green.” – Katherina

A word first used to describe the particular gleam of sunlight is now used to sell rhinestone-embellished jeans. Maybe poetry really is dead.

5. Belongings: Measure for Measure, Act I, Scene I

“Thyself and thy belongings are not thine own so proper as to waste thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.” – Duke Vincentio

People prior to Shakespeare’s time did own things; they just referred to them by different words.

6. Cold-blooded: King John, Act III, Scene I

“Thou cold-blooded slave, hast thou not spoke like thunder on my side, been sworn my soldier, bidding me depend upon thy stars, thy fortune and thy strength, and dost thou now fall over to my fores?” – Constance

Beyond its literal meaning, the 17th-century play initiated a metaphorical use for the term that is now most often used to describe serial killers and vampires—two categories which, of course, need not be mutually exclusive.

7. Dishearten: Henry V, Act IV, Scene I

“Therefore when he sees reason of fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are: yet, in reason, no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army.” – King Henry V

The opposite of “hearten,” a word already extant at the time of Shakespeare’s writing, “dishearten” was most appropriately first utilized in print by King Henry V, who didn’t let insurmountable odds at the Battle of Agincourt get him down.

8. Eventful: As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII

“Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” - Jaques

If all the world’s a stage, it’s safe to assume that an event or two is taking place.

9. Eyeball: The Tempest, Act I, Scene II

“Go make thyself like a nymph o' the sea: be subject to no sight but thine and mine, invisible to every eyeball else.” – Prospero

Shakespeare’s protagonist Prospero, though no medical doctor, can claim to be the first fictional character to name those round objects with which we see.

10. Fashionable: Troilus and Cressida, Act III, Scene III

“For time is like a fashionable host that slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand, and with his arms outstretch'd, as he would fly, grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles, and farewell goes out sighing.” – Ulysses

And with just 11 letters, centuries of debate over what’s hot or not began.

11. Half-blooded/hot-blooded: King Lear, Act V, Scene III/ Act III, Scene III

Half-blooded fellow, yes.” – Albany

“Why, the hot-blooded France, that dowerless took our youngest born, I could as well be brought to knee his throne, and, squire-like; pension beg to keep base life afoot.” – Lear

As is the tradition in Shakespearean tragedy, nearly everyone in King Lear dies, so the linguistic fascination here with blood is unsurprising, to say the least.

12. Inaudible: All’s Well That Ends Well, Act V, Scene III

“Let's take the instant by the forward top; for we are old, and on our quick'st decrees the inaudible and noiseless foot of Time steals ere we can effect them.” – King of France

One of a number of words (invulnerable, indistinguishable, inauspicious, among others) which Shakespeare invented only in the sense of adding a negative in- prefix where it had never been before.

13. Ladybird: Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene III

“What, lamb! What, ladybird! God forbid! Where's this girl? What, Juliet!” – Nurse

Although the Oxford English Dictionary notes that this particular term of endearment has fallen into disuse, maybe it’s about time for its comeback. Valentine’s Day is coming up, after all.

14. Manager: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene I

“Where is our usual manager of mirth? What revels are in hand? Is there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?” – King Theseus

If not for Shakespeare, workday complaining in the office break room just wouldn’t be the same.

15. Multitudinous: Macbeth, Act II, Scene II

“No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas in incarnadine, making the green one red.” – Macbeth

“Multitudinous” may not be the most appropriate synonym when the phrase “a lot” starts to crop up too often in your writing, but it’s certainly the one with the most letters.

16. New-fangled: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act I, Scene I

“At Christmas I no more desire a rose than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth.” – Biron

Ironically, this word sounds old-fashioned if used today.

17. Pageantry: Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Act V, Scene II

“This, my last boon, give me, for such kindness must relieve me, that you aptly will suppose what pageantry, what feats, what shows, what minstrelsy, and pretty din, the regent made in Mytilene to greet the king.” – Gower

Although modern scholars generally agree that Shakespeare only appears to have written the second half of the play, this newly invented term for an extravagant ceremonial display appears in the section definitively authored by the Bard.

18. Scuffle: Antony and Cleopatra, Act I, Scene I

“His captain's heart, which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst the buckles on his breast, reneges all temper, and is become the bellows and the fan to cool a gipsy's lust.” – Philo

Another example of an existing verb that Shakespeare decided could stand up just as well as a noun.

19. Swagger: Henry V, Act II, Scene IV/A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, Scene I

“An't please your majesty, a rascal that swaggered with me last night.” – Williams

“What hempen home-spuns have we swaggering here, so near the cradle of the fairy queen?” – Puck

By transitive property, Shakespeare is responsible for Justin Bieber’s “swag.”

20. Uncomfortable: Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, Scene V

“Despised, distressed, hated, martyr'd, kill'd! Uncomfortable time, why camest thou now to murder, murder our solemnity?” - Capulet

Un- was another prefix Shakespeare appended to adjectives with a liberal hand. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy in which a father mourns his daughter’s suicide, “uncomfortable” seems to have originated with a slightly more drastic sense than how we use it now.

Of course, just because the first written instances of these terms appeared in Shakespeare’s scripts doesn’t preclude the possibility that they existed in the oral tradition prior to his recording them, but as Shakespeare might have said, it was high time (The Comedy of Errors) for such household words (Henry V).

'Turdsworth': Lord Byron’s Not-So-Affectionate Nickname for William Wordsworth

GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images
GeorgiosArt/iStock via Getty Images

For those of you who thought William Wordsworth was a not-so-subtle pseudonym meant to further the literary brand of a certain 19th-century poet, think again: William Wordsworth’s real name was actually William Wordsworth.

The fitting, alliterative moniker makes it hard to forget that Wordsworth was a wordsmith, but it also made him an easy target for mockery at the hands of other Romantic era writers.

Some of it was the type of clever wordplay you might expect from England’s elite poets. In an essay for the London Review of Books, Michael Wood highlights the time that Samuel Taylor Coleridge sent his poem “The Nightingale” to Wordsworth, writing, “And like an honest bard, dear Wordsworth/You’ll tell me what you think, my Bird’s worth.”

While Coleridge’s witty rhyme poked fun at Wordsworth in a playful way, not all of his contemporaries were quite so kind. As Literary Hub points out, Lord Byron referred to Wordsworth as “Turdsworth.”

Byron’s jab sounds like something you’d hear at an elementary-school kickball game, but, then again, the eccentric poet was never one to adhere to anybody’s expectations—during college, for example, he often walked his pet bear around the grounds.

As for the word turd itself, it’s been around much longer than you might have realized. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it derives from the Old English word tord, meaning “piece of excrement,” and it’s been used as a personal insult ever since the 15th century.

If fecal-themed nicknames aren’t really your thing, here are 42 other Old English insults that you can fling with abandon.

[h/t Literary Hub]

14 Colonial-Era Slang Terms to Work Into Modern Conversation

The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

When you think of Colonial America, soldiers marching to fife and drum and Benjamin Franklin flying a kite are probably what come to mind. But the Colonial Period—which stretched from roughly 1607 to 1776, starting when America was just a group of colonies on the east side of the continent and ending with the Revolutionary War and the signing of the Declaration of Independence—was a fascinating but complicated time in which settlers from England forged a proud new identity. These new settlers brought the English language with them when they came, and whenever English finds a new home, it often takes on a new life. America was no exception. Here are 15 slang words that were recorded in and around this period of American history.

1. Kedge

What It Meant: Doing well

In you lived in a country town in Colonial-era New England and someone asked how you were doing, you might have replied, “I’m pretty kedge.” It’s a bizarre but wonderful term that essentially means in being in good health—but it also kind of sounds like something a teen in an ‘80s movie would say.

2. Cat's-paw, or to be made a cat's-paw out of

What It Meant: To be a dupe, to be used as a tool.

This colorful expression came from a fable, The Monkey and the Cat, where a monkey persuades a cat to pull chestnuts out of a fire, promising the cat its share. Spoiler alert: The cat doesn't get any. So to be used for someone else's gain is to be made a "cat's paw out of."

3. Chuffy

What It Meant: Surly or impolite

If someone is short with you, tell them they don’t have to be so chuffy. It’s a strange, old word with obscure origins, and one that sounds a bit softer than “jerk.”

4. Scranch

What It Meant: To crack something between your teeth

Though this apparently “vulgar” term sounds like it was named after what it sounds like to crack something with your teeth, it supposedly comes from the Dutch word, schransen.

5. Gut-foundered

What It Meant: Very Hungry

This word, which dates to 1647, is believed to be regional Newfoundland slang. Gut-foundered could easily become a new hyperbole for us pampered moderns to employ, like “starving.”

6. Fishy

What It Meant: Drunk

Possibly no one invented more ways to say “drunk” than colonial Americans. Benjamin Franklin alone compiled 200 ways to say it. Fishy was meant to also imply the way the drinker looked: “Bleary eyes and turned-down mouth corners make a drunk resemble a fish,” writes Richard M. Lederer, Jr. at American Heritage.

7. Macaroni

What It Meant: Fancy

When Yankee Doodle called that feather hat “macaroni,” he wasn’t being a weirdo. Macaroni was a term used at the time to refer to a particular men’s fashion from England that was intentionally flashy, over-the-top, and androgynous.

8. Twistical

What It Meant: Unfair or immoral

This word—which according to 1848’s Dictionary of Americanisms was primarily used in New England—feels like it could just as easily have been invented today. Slip it into conversation in the next time you experience something unjust.

9. Savvy, Savey, or Sabby

What It Meant: To know or understand

While we still use this word to mean something like “literate” (computer-savvy), in Colonial times, it was actually used more like the way Jack Sparrow uses it. So you might say, “I don’t want to come to work anymore, savvy that?” According to Merriam-Webster, it’s derived from sabe, which means “he knows” in Portuguese. This became sabi in Creole, and later, “savvy.”

10. Adam’s Ale

What It Meant: Water

If you’re feeling thirsty for water, try using this slang term that was popular on both sides of the pond in the Colonial era. To quote a 1792 American poem by Philip Freneau, “In reason’s scale his actions weigh’d / His spirits want no foreign aid / Long life is his, in vigour passes / A spring that never grew stale / Such virtue lies in Adam’s Ale.”

11. Shaver

What It Meant: A young or adolescent boy

To call a boy a shaver was to imply that they were young enough that they just started shaving. Which is fitting, if a little condescending—like they’re not embarrassed enough already!

12. Jollification

What It Meant: Celebration or merrymaking

It's hard to even say jollification without sounding like a reenactor at Colonial Williamsburg. And though jollification sounds like it would be a good thing, it seems like there was also such a thing as too much jollification: The August 10, 1772 edition of The Pennsylvania Packet used the word in a morality tale about a man named Hilario: "What jolification [sic] could be complete without Hilario? Cards succeeded cards every morning to invite him to dinner, to routs, to dances; his only excuse was prior engagement, and he had not resolution to withstand the temptations.” By the end of the tale, according to Children In Colonial America, "a life of cards, women, and wanton spending slowly whittled away his wealth ... no woman would marry him, and even his good looks had failed him."

13. Simon Pure

What It Meant: The real deal, authentic, untainted

A delightful phrase that rolls off the tongue and could be dropped into many modern sentences. And when someone asks you, “who the heck is Simon?” you tell them that Simon Pure was a Quaker character who has to prove he’s the real Simon Pure in a 1718 play by Susanna Centlivre called A Bold Stroke for a Wife.

14. Circumbendibus

What It Meant: Roundabout

Of all the ways to describe something unnecessarily roundabout— like someone telling a rambling story or taking a weird road when driving somewhere—this word, which dates to 1681, might be the most delightful. It also shows how much we fun we had and still have with language, combining prefixes and suffixes to make new words.

Joe Gillard is the author of The Little Book of Lost Words, and the founder of History Hustle.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER