History’s greatest playwright and writer William Shakespeare did not only write words—he actually invented quite a few of his own!
But can anyone just “invent” words? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of communicating so people can understand you?
Did Shakespeare Really Invent Words?
Writers can invent words in the same way that scientists invent things: by piecing together different parts to create a new whole. Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem starts off with 11 made-up words in the first stanza:
Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.—From Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky
One major difference between these invented words and those that Shakespeare used, however, is that these words are considered nonce, or nonsense, meaningless, and intended for use only once.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, used existing words and altered them or used them in new ways. He did this through several different means:
- using nouns as verbs
- using verbs as adjectives
- connecting words that have never before been used together
- adding a prefix
- adding a suffix,
- concocting wholly original terms
How Many Words Did Shakespeare Invent?
According to the scholars who made the Oxford English Dictionary, Shakespeare “invented” a total of more than 1,700 words. The dictionary indicates this by identifying where each word first appeared in written English.
Based on this system, Shakespeare is the attributed source of more words than all other writers. However, we have three disclaimers: first, in many cases, he was just the person who first penned the words on paper, even if the words were already used in oral communication.
Second, the Oxford English Dictionary cited Shakespeare as being one of the earliest written works where some of the words appear, and not necessarily as the earliest.
But because he’s a famous personality, his works were among the most prominent in his time, and thus it was easier to pass along the information that he was the first to use those words.
Third, the advent of computers and the Internet has made it faster to search printed material, and many of the words originally attributed to him have been found in print at an earlier date elsewhere.
But even with the finding that the number 1,700 is not completely accurate, that does not discount the fact that Shakespeare did resort to inventing quite a few words.
Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke wrote a thick volume called The Shakespeare Key, in which they created an exhaustive list on the words that Shakespeare invented.
They describe how the writer “minted several words,” including terms that the authors believe deserve to be taken into current use.
They also say that Shakespeare “coined” these words for his own use, but the result is so meaningful that they could very well be used in other instances.
So although Shakespeare created words that today’s readers cannot easily grasp, during his time, his audience would have been able to understand him. Why?
First, during that time, a movement in English literature was encouraging the use of more prose in plays. (Before that, plays primarily used rhyming verse.) Shakespeare’s writing reflected the style of common conversation in the Elizabethan era, making it easy to understand for his audience.
Second, the words he invented could be understood in their context. For example, he coined the word “congreeted” by adding the prefix “con,” which means “with,” to the word “greet.”
Taken by itself, it might be impossible to guess its meaning. But let’s look at this excerpt from Henry V:
Since, then, my office hath so far prevailed
That face to face and royal eye to eye
You have congreeted. Let it not disgrace me
If I demand before this royal view—From Henry V, Act V, Scene II
Sometimes, readers can understand his meaning intuitively, such as when he uses the noun friend as a verb. (Perhaps a 395-year precedent of Facebook?)
And what so poor a man as Hamlet is
May do, to express his love and friending to you—From Hamlet, Act I, Scene V
Words Credited to Shakespeare
So it seems that even if Shakespeare did not necessarily invent all the 1,700 words initially attributed to him, he was still responsible for making them popular enough for regular use, or even for giving us a new take on some existing words!
Here is a list of some of the words that either Shakespeare invented, or at least possibly first occurred in written form in his plays:
- Academe – the school community; used in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act I, Scene i.
- Accommodation – adjustment or adaptation; found in Measure for Measure, Act III, Scene i.
- Addiction – dependence or obsession; used in Othello, Act II, Scene ii.
- Admirable – to be attractive; found in Hamlet, Act II Scene ii
- Agile – being able to move easily or quickly; found in Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene i.
- Airless – being without circulation of wind; found in Julius Caesar, Act I Scene iii
- Allurement – appeal or enticement; found in All’s Well That Ends Well, Act IV, Scene ii.
- Amazement – to be full of wonder; found in several places, including Tempest, Act I, Scene ii, Measure for Measure, Act IV, Scene ii, and Hamlet Act III, Scene iv.
- Anchovy – a kind of fish; found in Henry IV Part 1, Act II, Scene iv.
- Antipathy – hatred or dislike; used in King Lear, Act II, Scene ii.
- Arch-villain – a very mean person; used in Timon of Athens, Act V, Scene i.
- Assassination – a violent killing or murder; used in Macbeth, Act I, Scene vii.
- Auspicious – a good omen to indicate future success; used in Love’s Labour’s Lost
- Bachelorship – the state of being single for a man; found in Henry VI, Part I, Act V, Scene iv.
- Bandit – a criminal; Henry VI, Part 2, Act IV, Scene i
- Bedazzled – a term to describe the gleam of sunlight; used in The Taming of the Shrew, Act IV, Scene v.
- Bedroom – the place where a person sleeps in the home, used to be called bedchambers; found in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act II, Scene ii.
- Belongings – properties or belongings; used in Measure for Measure, Act 1, Scene i.
- Bloodstained – Titus Andronicus, Act II, Scene iii.
- Catastrophe – a disaster; used in King Lear, Act I, Scene ii.
- Cold-blooded – heartless or insensitive; used in King John, Act III, Scene i.
- Critic – someone who gives an unfavorable evaluation of something; Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act III, Scene i.
- Dauntless – showing determination and fearlessness; Henry VI, Part 3.
- Dawn – sunrise; Henry V, Act IV Prologue.
- Demonstrate – to show or to display; used in Othello, Act I, Scene i.
- Dexterously – skillfully done or created accurately; found in Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene v.
- Dire – miserable, ominous, or dreadful; found in Comedy of Errors, Act I, Scene i.
- Dishearten – to dismay or to disappoint; used in Henry V, Act IV, Scene i.
- Dislocate – to make out of place; used in King Lear, Act IV, Scene ii.
- Dwindle – to deteriorate or go slower; Henry IV, Part 1.
- Elbow – noun used as a verb to mean “to move aside”; King Lear, Act IV, Scene iii.
- Emphasis – to give attention to something or to make it prominent; used in Antony and Cleopatra, Act I, Scene v.
- Epileptic – a person having epilepsy; King Lear, Act II, Scene ii.
- Emulate – to imitate or copy something; found in Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III, Scene iii.
- Eventful – an exciting or momentous happening; used in As You Like It, Act II, Scene vii.
- Exist – to come to reality; found in King Lear, Act I, Scene i.
- Extract – to draw out or withdraw; found in Henry V, Act II, Scene ii.
- Eyeball – another word to mean eyes; used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, Scene ii.
- Fashionable – to be trendy or stylish; used in Troilus and Cressida, Act III, Scene iii.
- Fract (used as a verb) – Henry V, Act II, Scene i.
- Friend (used as a verb) – Hamlet, Act I, Scene v.
- Frugal – to be thrifty or stingy; found in Merry Wives of Windsor, Act II, Scene i.
- Gnarled – knobbly or twisted; Measure for Measure, Act II, Scene ii.
- Green–Eyed – used to refer to jealousy; found in The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene ii.
- Grovel – to crawl on the ground facing downward, or act in a servile manner to ask for someone’s pardon; used in Henry IV, Part II, Act I, Scene iv.
- Half-blooded – having a relationship with only one parent; found in King Lear, Act V, Scene iii.
- Hereditary – something congenital or inherited; found in Antony and Cleopatra, Act I, Scene iv.
- Horrid – dreadful or horrible; used in Hamlet, Act I, Scene iv.
- Hot-blooded – being vocal about emotions or being passionate; used in King Lear, Act II, Scene iv.
- Impertinent – disrespectful or insolent; used in The Tempest, Act I, Scene ii.
- Inaudible – being imperceptible; used in All’s Well That Ends Well, Act V, Scene iii.
- Jaded – lacking enthusiasm; King Henry VI, Part II, Act IV, Scene i.
- Jovial – being jolly or cheerful; found in Macbeth, Act III, Scene ii.
- Lackluster – lacking vitality; used in As You Like It, Act II, Scene vii.
- Ladybird – a small beetle, but used as an endearing term in Shakespeare’s time; found in Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene iii.
- Laughable – amusing; used in The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene i.
- Lonely – sad from having no company; used in Coriolanus, Act IV, Scene i.
- Manager – the person in charge of something; used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene i.
- Marketable – fit to be sold; used in As You Like It, Act I, Scene ii.
- Meditate – to contemplate, think, or ponder; used in Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene if.
- Mimic – to imitate; A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, Scene ii.
- Modest – means humble, moderate, or shy; used in Coriolanus, Act I, Scene i.
- Moonbeam – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, Scene i.
- Multitudinous – means too many or a lot; found in Macbeth, Act II, Scene ii.
- Mutiny – an uprising or revolution; used in Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene i.
- Negotiate – to ask for an adjustment in a transaction; found in Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, Scene i.
- New-fangled – refers to the newest or the latest; used in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act I, Scene i.
- Obscene – something offensive, immoral, or indecent; used in Love’s Labours Lost, Act I, Scene i.
- Outbreak – the sudden start of something unwelcome; Hamlet, Act II, Scene i.
- Pageantry – an extravagant show; used in Pericles, Act V, Scene ii.
- Pedant – a formalist or perfectionist; found in Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene ii.
- Pell–mell – clutter or disorder; found in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act IV, Scene iii.
- Premeditated – something planned or deliberate; found in Henry V
- Rant – to complain loudly; Hamlet, Act V, Scene i.
- Reliance – dependence or assurance; found in Timon of Athens, Act II, Scene i.
- Savagery – wickedness; King John, Act IV, Scene iii.
- Scuffle – refers to a fight or brawl; used in Antony and Cleopatra, Act I, Scene i.
- Skim-milk – used to describe someone of weak character; found in Henry IV, Part 1.
- Submerged – means sink or put underwater; found in Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene v.
- Swagger – boasting or bragging; found in Henry V, Act II, Scene iv.
- Torture – to inflict severe pain to someone to force them to do something; used in King Henry VI, Part II, Act II, Scene i.
- Unaware – the state of not knowing something; found in Venus and Adonis
- Uncomfortable – feeling uneasy or awkward; found in Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, Scene v.
- Undress – to remove one’s clothing; used in Taming of the Shrew, Scene iii.
- Unearthly – mysterious or unnatural; used in A Winter’s Tale, Act III, Scene i.
- Unreal – strange that it appears imaginary; found in Macbeth, Act III, Scene iv.
- Vast – something very large in range; found in Timon of Athens, Act IV, Scene iii.
- Zany – unconventional in a humorous way; found in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act V, Scene ii.
Words Invented by Shakespeare
It’s incredible to think that some of the words you use every day were first penned by Shakespeare!
And for any words on this list that were unfamiliar to you, you can now use them to expand your vocabulary and add some Shakespearean flavor to your writing!
Which words on this list surprised you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!