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).

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BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

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Why Are Common Graves Called Potter’s Fields?

Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
Graves in potter's fields are sometimes marked with blank headstones or crosses.
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For centuries, regions around the world have maintained common graves called potter’s fields, where they bury unidentified victims and impoverished citizens who couldn’t afford their own cemetery plots. The term potter’s field has been around for just as long.

The earliest known reference to a potter’s field is from the Gospel of Matthew, which historians believe was written sometime during the 1st century. In it, a remorseful Judas gives the 30 silver coins he was paid for betraying Jesus back to the high priests, who use it to purchase a “potter’s field” where they can bury foreigners. It’s been speculated that the priests chose land from a potter either because it had already been stripped of clay and couldn’t be used for farming, or because its existing holes and ditches made it a particularly good place for graves. But Matthew doesn’t go into detail, and as the Grammarphobia Blog points out, there’s no evidence to prove that the original potter’s field was ever actually used for its clay resources—it could’ve just been a parcel of land owned by a potter.

Whatever the case, the term eventually caught on as English-language versions of the Bible made their way across the globe. In 1382, John Wycliffe translated it from Latin to Middle English, using the phrase “a feeld of a potter,” and William Tyndale’s 1526 Greek-to-English translation of the passage featured “a potters felde,” which was altered slightly to “potters field” in King James’s 1611 edition.

Around the same time, a new definition of potter was gaining popularity that had nothing to do with pottery—in the 16th century, people began using the word as a synonym for tramp or vagrant. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first written in a 1525 Robin Hood tale, and William Wordsworth mentioned it in his 1798 poem “The Female Vagrant.” It’s likely that this sense of the word helped reinforce the idea that a potter’s field was intended for the graves of the unknown.

It’s also definitely not the only phrase we’ve borrowed from the Bible. From at your wit’s end to a fly in the ointment, here are 18 everyday expressions with holy origins.

[h/t Grammarphobia Blog]