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I am having a discussion with colleagues about a recent news article relating to new words in the dictionary (cleggmannia? really?) and got onto the subject of evolution of language, and how many words Shakespeare 'invented'.

Having never given the statistic a second thought until now, it occurs to me that it is bizarre to imagine someone who, at the time a successful popularist playwright, would just stick words of ambiguous meaning (to his audience at least) into his works.

Is it not a more sensible suggestion that he was simply the earliest recorded individual to write these words down, and that they were probably very much in common use at the time?

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Popular rap musicians do it all the time today. Especially when they are out of ideas for a rhyming lyric. No one seems to mind so much now. – JohnFx Oct 28 '10 at 14:58
this seems to fit better in skeptics.stackexchange.com/users/5832/ajax333221 – ajax333221 Apr 20 '12 at 0:14
up vote 18 down vote accepted

This was on my list of questions to ask at this site! I don't have an answer but I do have some thoughts and further questions.

Most of these words seem to be variants. If you look at the list here at Words Shakespeare invented, most of these are variations. For example amazement is a variant of amaze. It’s a little more credible to vary an existing word than introduce a completely new one. Also could it be true that there was a lot more improvisation in the language generally at the time due to the lack of a literate populace and established written standards and dictionaries.

First to use in print isn't the same as invent If this was the dawn of English language publishing then presumably Shakespeare was just in the right place at the right time for be the first to print with many English Words.

What of Shakespeare's Rivals? If Shakespeare was in the right place at the right time then so surely were Marlowe and Jonson - I haven't seen similar claims for them.

Does every language have its Shakespeare? I've heard Luther being called the father of German. Would Homer be the same for Ancent Greek? What about other languages?

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From what info I can quickly gather, it seems Shakespeare was very popular in a time when the language was coming out of a period of ambiguity and flux, and was beginning to be tamed and formalised. Obviously, a writer of his popularity will have huge influence at a time like that. We are no longer at a time like that, our language long since standardised – Mild Fuzz Oct 28 '10 at 10:50
I think your second point is key, Cindi. Shakespeare has the first citation for a large number of words, but each of those uses was not necessarily an invention of Shakespeare's. – Kosmonaut Oct 28 '10 at 13:03
There's a possibly enlightening comparison with Sir Thomas Urquhart, who invented many words in his writings: most of them are exuberant concoctions, and few of them have entered the language. – Colin Fine Oct 28 '10 at 14:23
@Mild Fuzz I'm going to take the other side of that argument. The English language is very much in flux right now. 90,000 words were added to the English dictionary in the 20th century, increasing the vocabulary by about 25%. – ghoppe Apr 19 '11 at 2:20
Most of them are rubbish ones like "walkman" (can we take this one out now?) – Mild Fuzz Apr 19 '11 at 10:03

We don't have a huge amount of writing from ordinary people of the time.

Imagine if the only texts surviving from today were Glen Beck scripts and supreme court judgments we would think that the Fox 'journalist' had created most of the language.

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