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).

13 Alternative Lyrics From “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)
craftyjoe/iStock via Getty Images Plus (pear tree), snegok13/iStock via Getty Images Plus (peacock)

First published in English in 1780, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" (actually the 12 days after Christmas) is thought to have originated in France as a children’s forfeit game with ever more elaborate gifts added to the collection, verse by verse, as a test of memory. Whatever its origins may be, however, as the carol grew in popularity throughout the 19th century, numerous versions and variations of its lyrics began to emerge.

Some of these differences still survive in different versions sung today: The traditional “five gold rings” are sometimes described as “five golden rings,” and while some performances describe what “my true love gave to me,” others say the gifts were “sent to me.” But these kinds of subtle differences are nothing compared to some of the gifts in the song’s earlier incarnations.

1. "A Very Pretty Peacock"

One early version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was recorded by the Scottish poet and artist William Scott Bell in 1892. Although most of Bell’s lyrics are identical to what we sing today, in his version each verse concludes not with “a partridge in a pear tree,” but with a considerably more ostentatious “very pretty peacock upon a pear tree.”

2. "Four Canary Birds"

In the original 1780 version, the “four calling birds” are instead described as “four colly birds,” colly—literally “coaly”—being an old English dialect word meaning “soot-black.” By the mid-19th century, however, the word colly had largely fallen out of use, leaving several Victorian editions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" to come up with their own replacements. “Colour’d birds” and even “curley birds” were used in some editions, while an exotic “four canary birds” were added to the lyrics of one version. The now standard “four calling birds” first appeared in the early 1900s.

3. And 4. "Eight Hares A-Running" and "Eleven Badgers Baiting"

In 1869, an article appeared in an English magazine called The Cliftonian that described a traditional Christmas in rural Gloucestershire, southwest England. The author of the piece wrote that he had heard some local carol singers singing a curious Christmas song, which he noted for the “peculiarity and the utter absurdity of the words.” After outlining the first two of "The Twelve Days of Christmas," he went on to explain that the carol “proceeds in this ascending manner until on the twelfth day of Christmas the young lady receives … [an] astounding tribute of true love”—among which are “eight hares a-running” and “eleven badgers baiting.”

5., 6., 7., And 8. "Seven Squabs A-Swimming," "Eight Hounds A-Running," "Nine Bears A-Beating," And "TEN Cocks A-Crowing"

One of the earliest American versions of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was listed in The American Journal of Folklore in 1900. Credited to a contributor from Salem, Massachusetts, and dated to “about 1800,” there are no pipers, drummers, maids, or swans here (and lords and ladies had a number change). Instead, in their place are “ten cocks a-crowing,” “nine bears a-beating,” “eight hounds a-running,” and “seven squabs a-swimming.”

9. And 10. "Ten Asses Racing" and "Eleven Bulls A-Beating"

An edition of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" included in Folk Songs From Somerset published in 1911 discarded the “pipers piping” and “lords a-leaping” in favor of “eleven bulls a-beating” and “ten asses racing.” In fact, not even the partridge in the pear tree made the final cut here: In its place was a “part of a mistletoe bough.”

11. and 12. "Ten Ships A-Sailing" and "Eleven Ladies Spinning"

In an 1842 edition of Specimens of Lyric Poetry, out went the “ten drummers drumming” and the “eleven lords a-leaping” (downgraded to only nine lords, still a-leaping) and in came “ten ships a-sailing” and “eleven ladies spinning.” Not only that, but this edition also explained in a footnote how "The Twelve Days of Christmas" might once have been used: “Each child in succession repeats the gifts of the day, and forfeits for each mistake. The accumulative process is a favourite with children.”

13. "An Arabian Baboon"

An alternative Scots version of "The Twelve Day of Christmas" was reported in use in Scotland in the first half of the 19th century, before finding its way into a collection of Popular Rhymes of Scotland published in 1847. Although there are a handful of similarities between this version and the version we’d sing today (“ducks a-merry laying” and “swans a-merry swimming” both make an appearance), relatively little of what we’d recognize remains intact. “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day,” is the new opening line, and many of the gifts are given in sets of three rather than as part of a larger 12-part sequence—but it’s what the gifts themselves are that is the most striking. Alongside the swans and ducks, the king sends his lady “a bull that was brown,” “a goose that was gray,” “three plovers,” “a papingo-aye” (an old Scots dialect word for a parrot, although occasionally translated as peacock)—and, just when things can’t get any stranger, “an Arabian baboon.”

Merriam-Webster Declares They Its Word of the Year

artisteer/iStock via Getty Images
artisteer/iStock via Getty Images

Merriam-Webster’s 2019 Word of the Year is one that you probably use about a dozen times a day: they.

It’s been a big year for the gender-neutral pronoun, whose definition in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary was expanded to include its use as a singular nonbinary pronoun in September.

CNN notes that searches for they on the Merriam-Webster site have increased 313 percent over last year’s data, but the Word of the Year isn’t determined by growth alone. As Merriam-Webster senior editor and lexicographer Emily Brewster explained on WRSI, a word also needs to have considerable search spikes throughout the year in order to qualify.

“That says to us that a word is significant for that particular year; that it has some kind of important association with the actual year,” she said.

And they definitely had several landmark search spikes in 2019. According to CNN, look-ups peaked when nonbinary model Oslo Grace walked in Paris Fashion Week in January, when U.S. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal disclosed that her child was gender-nonconforming in April, and during Pride celebrations around the world in June (this year was also the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots). Many major style guides, including the Associated Press, have recognized they as an accepted singular pronoun in the past few years.

In addition to the Word of the Year, Merriam-Webster also published their top 10 most-searched terms, which paint an intriguing portrait of 2019 in review. There were political terms like quid pro quo, impeach, and clemency, the word the—which spiked after The Ohio State University tried to trademark it in August—and the enigmatic word camp, which baffled many a fashion blogger as the theme of the Met Gala in May.

[h/t CNN]

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