I have read many essays on the heavily debated subject of just how many words Our immortal Bard coined. I think it is safe to say, some of the words (and phrases) which are credited to him are undoubtedly his own, and yet there are as well many others which I, and many others, though wholeheartedly would love to see credited to Shakespeare, nevertheless, seem uneasy to accept it.

I was looking through numerous compiled lists of words supposedly coined by the Bard, and found one which truly peaked my interest--"Alligator"!

I already knew the etymology of the word due to my previous interest in the cónquistadors and Spain's 15th, 16th-century history; initially "la lagarto" coined by the early Spaniards who entered The Americas and more specifically Terra de La Florida (possibly Ponce De Leon or those with him); and I already knew the Spanish word "aligarto" was already in use during Elizabethan England, and of course "Crocodile" is a word dating much farther back; But is there any evidence of the use of the word "alligator" before Shakespeare?

OED puts:

1560s, "large carnivorous reptile of the Americas," lagarto, aligarto, a corruption of Spanish el lagarto (de Indias) "the lizard (of the Indies)," from Latin lacertus (see lizard), with Spanish definite article el, from Latin ille (see le). The modern form of the English word is attested from 1620s, with unetymological -r as in tater, feller, etc. (Alligarter was an early variant) and an overall Latin appearance

Here is the use of "alligator" by Shakespeare: From Romeo and Juliet, (V, 1, line 2840)

And in his needy shop a tortoise hung, An alligator stuff'd, and other skins Of ill-shaped fishes;

Here is the First (1623), Second (1632), Third (1665), and fourth (1685) Folio spelling:

and in his needie shop a tortoyrs hung, an Allegater stuft, and other skins of ill shap'd fishes

although Fourth Folio makes it "Allegator" with an "o".

And the first (bad) Quarto of R&J reads:

As I past by, whose needie shop is stufft With beggerly accounts of emptie boxes: And in the same an Aligarta hangs, Olde endes of packthred, and cakes of Roses,

But the second (good) Quarto of 1599 reads:

And in his needie shop a tortoyes hung, An allegater stuft, and other skins Of ill shapte fishes,

so, though the spelling is off, undoubtedly the word reads as "Alligator", and since those Jacobeans spelled the way a word sounded, I think there is strong evidence to hold that the pronunciation of the word is "alligator"--as the "r" in-between "aligarto" is moved to the front, "alligator" or "Allegater"--thus, the essence of our modern-day name of the animal is more like Shakespeare's added "r" at the end" then any other archaic name used prior.

By 1643 the word "Alligator" is in use, as seen in Madagascar, the richest and most frvitfvll island in the world (1643)

the greatest enemy their Cattell have, is the crocodile or alligator, who being in the fresh rivers, meets with them sometimes when they come to water, but of these there are not many, and those might soone be destroyed if the natives had either wit or skill to doe it:

I did find the word being used in a 1542 text, but it does not seem to have anything to do with the animal:

or throwe any thynge agaynst the grounde or walles: [.] # alligator, he that byndeth: [.] # alligatura

My question is: did anyone use the name before Shakespeare in writing? And thus did Shakespeare really coin the modern name of "alligator" (even though it was spelled differently--different syllables, but otherwise very recognizable)?

  • If you'd rather use a true em dash and you don't have a code for it, here is one: "—". – LPH Oct 8 '20 at 21:53
  • 1
    You have access to the OED, which is the best reference for this kind of thing. The OED describes a process where a Spanish term has been progressively mangled to give the English word (probably influenced by the similar-sounding word alligator, meaning someone who ties or ligates things, which you also cite.) So it doesn't make sense to say Shakespeare coined the word, but he presumably heard it and used a variation of it, and doubtless popularised it. – Stuart F Oct 9 '20 at 10:18
  • @StuartF A very good answer, indeed! I would love to see that evolution from the Spanish word into English--Does the OED really do that? I had no idea!--Thank you for this. – Tom O' Bedlam Oct 9 '20 at 12:30

In a word, no. Shakespeare did not coin 'alligator', not even in the form 'aligarta' (The most excellent Tragedie of Romeo and Iuliet, 1597: "And in the same an Aligarta hangs"). What evidence there is suggests, rather, that he (or whoever produced the 1597 text) might have adopted and singularized the form after its use by Walter Bigges (died 1586) in the 1589 A summarie and true discourse of Sir Francis Drakes VVest Indian voyage: "…where we killed also many Aligartas aforsaid".

Note that the OED etymological history of 'alligator' in the Third Edition, September 2012, is (by my measure) greatly changed from that in the Second Edition.

Etymology: < Spanish el lagarto < el the + lagarto lizard (13th cent.), kind of large New World reptile, alligator (first half of the 16th cent., no longer used in this sense), ultimately < classical Latin lacerta …, perhaps via an unattested post-classical Latin form *lacarta.

Compare ( < English) French alligator (1663; > scientific Latin Alligator, genus name (1807 in Cuvier)). Compare also ( < French) Spanish aligátor (1797 or earlier; the more common word is now caimán…).
The remodelling of the ending of the word from -arto or -arta to -ator or -ater probably results from association with agent nouns in -ator or -ater….

The textual evidence cited by OED in the Third Edition has changed. Saliently, the 1568 quotation in the Second Edition has been omitted, and a 1555 quotation "relevant to the development of a sense but not directly illustrative of it" stands in its stead.

The problematic 1577 quotation in the Second Edition remains, although the nature of the problem receives an editorial tip of the hat in the Third Edition it did not feature in the Second Edition: "… [Sp. Caymanes, que llaman Lagartos].]" The second, dangling, close-bracket may indicate that a typographical error failed to enclose the entire attestation in brackets showing that the use of 'lagartos' in the quote was not considered directly illustrative of English, as opposed to Spanish, use of the word.

The 1589 use I cited from Bigges, the singular form of which parallels the plural form found in the 1597 Shakespeare, does not get a mention in the OED Second or Third Editions, but the 1591 Knivet attestation from the Second Edition does appear in the Third; the next attestation following the Knivet quote in the Third Edition is from the 1597 publication of Romeo and Juliet.

I find the note in the OED Third Edition regarding the remodeling of the ending of the word far more palatable than the Second Edition's "whence by popular corruption" and following convolutions, if for no other reason than Occam's razor.

  • "The trauailes of Iob Hortop, which Sir Iohn Hawkins set on land within the Bay of Mexico, after his departure from the Hauen of S. Iohn de Vllua in Nueua Espanna, the 8. of October 1568" in Hakluyt's Voyages mentions a "Lagarto": "In this riuer we killed a monstrous Lagarto or Crocodile in this port at sunne set: seuen of vs went in the pinnesse vp into the Riuer, carying with vs a dogge, ... – Sven Yargs Oct 13 '20 at 5:32
  • "... vnto whom with rope-yarne we bound a great hooke of steele, with a chaine that had a swiuel, which we put vnder the dogs belly, the point of the •ooke comming ouer his back fast bound, as aforesaid: we put him ouer boord, and vexed out our rope by litle and litle, rowing away with our boate: the Lagarto came & presently swallowed vp the dogge, then did we rowe hard, till we had choked him: he plunged and made a wonderful stirre in the water: we leapt on shore, and haled him on land: he was 23. foote by the rule, headed like a hogge, in body like a serpent, full of scales as broad ... – Sven Yargs Oct 13 '20 at 5:33
  • "... as a sawcer; his taile long and full of knots as bigge as a faw•on shotte: he hath foure legs, his feete haue long nailes like vnto a dragon: we opened him, tooke out his guts, flayed him, dried his skinne, and stuffed it with straw, meaning to haue brought it home, had not the ship bin cast away. This monster will cary a∣way and deuoure both man and horse." – Sven Yargs Oct 13 '20 at 5:34
  • That's worthwhile information, @SvenYargs, although I confess I deliberately omitted mention of Job Hortop's 1591 two uses of 'alagarta' in "The trauailes of an English man". The answer seemed unduly burdened with attributive detail even without that relevant source. – JEL Oct 13 '20 at 5:37

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