Shakespeare Not Quite the Fount of Language He Was Previously Held to Be

The Cobbe portrait is an early Jacobean panel painting thought to be the only painting from life of William Shakespeare (image via the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust)

The grandiose claims about the late William Shakespeare, dramaturge and poet par excellence, include that he was over one hundred feet tall, owned a large blue ox, and introduced over three thousand words to the English language. But according to a recent article in the Boston Globe, the latter may not be the case. Yes, the Bard was a master of narrative and an inscrutable stylist, but as old texts are gradually digitized, the number of words whose lineage was previously traceable only to his pen has sharply decreased — from 3,200 first-use citations in the Oxford English Dictionary fifty years ago to 2,000 today.

This kind of makes sense, after all, and does not in the slightest diminish from the man’s influence. In light of these revisions to the nature of Shakespeare’s contributions, which belong more to the annals of literature than the arena of language in the first place, we are again reminded of the nature of creative celebrity and the tendency to dubiously canonize long-dead figures.

Though the Boston Globe chose to publish the story on Sunday, these revelations aren’t exactly new — for instance, Holger Syme blogged about this in 2011, citing the Oxford Middleton Project as an example of a major archival inquiry into Shakespeare’s legacy. But one might consider that although the Shakespearean lexicon’s originality can now be quantitatively disputed, visual art — despite many advances in optical analysis — still remains beyond the reproach of such techniques.

The astronomical number of first-use citations Shakespeare had accumulated in the Oxford English Dictionary was due in large part to the tedious manual sourcing techniques employed in the late 19th century, when the dictionary was first compiled. And many scholars had long suspected that Shakespeare’s claim to linguistic innovation was largely exaggerated. As Katherine Martin, head of US Dictionaries at Oxford University Press, told Public Radio International:

“After all if he was just going around inventing words all the time no one would’ve understand what the people in his plays were saying. It’s more accurate to say that he was recording the language of his time.”

As for the debunked words themselves, the aforementioned Public Radio International report cites “puke” as a word formerly attributed to Shakespeare. No word yet on “foppish,” “misquote,” “puppy-dog,” “advertising,” “gossip,” and nearly two thousand other words still firmly in the “Shakespeare invented it” column until new evidence emerges.

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