Shakespeare Day: How the bard’s successful wordplay still adds excitement to our language
On 23 April 1616, renowned playwright William Shakespeare passed away at the age of 52. A celebration of his life and work still takes place every year on the 23 April to mark his achievements.
Today, Shakespeare is often associated with exams for teenagers up and down the country. More than 400 years after his death, his plays are still a core part of the national curriculum. You may remember poring over a copy of Hamlet or trying to decipher metaphors in Macbeth in your school days.
During his lifetime, Shakespeare wrote some 39 plays and more than 150 sonnets – providing plenty of material for classrooms. While the bard might be associated with studying, his impact on the English language is much greater than what’s taught at school.
Shakespeare is credited with inventing more than 1,700 words (including “successful” and “excitement”)
While other playwrights are also credited with inventing new words, Shakespeare is linked to a staggering amount; more than 1,700 words are first recorded in his work.
While reading the playwright’s text today can seem far different to our language, there’s a surprising number of words that first appeared in his work and are still relevant.
Here’s just a handful of the words that first appeared in Shakespeare’s plays:
It’s not just new words that the bard invented either – he cleverly combined words to create turns of phrase that emphasise events, emotions, and conjure up images.
If you’ve ever said “green-eyed monster”, “the world is your oyster”, or “catch a cold”, you’ve been quoting Shakespeare’s Othello, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Cymbeline.
His creative and witty wordplay has led to memorable insults that can still make audiences chuckle today, from “more of your conversation would infect my brain” (Coriolanus) to “I do desire we may be better strangers” (As You Like It).
Shakespeare’s rich vocabulary and unique ways to express emotions from joy to despair have ensured his work remains much-loved and celebrated centuries after his death.
Of course, historians can’t be sure that all these words and phrases can be attributed to the mind of Shakespeare. After all, audiences in the 1600s would have needed some frame of reference to understand the plays.
Yet, he certainly played a role in making them more popular and ensuring some continue to be a part of our lexicon today.
Would “fashionable” still be used if Ulysses hadn’t used the term in Troilus and Cressida?
5 of Shakespeare’s inventions that didn’t catch on
You can’t win them all, and the same is true for Shakespeare. While a huge number of his invented words have made their way into everyday use, some of his creations didn’t catch on in the same way as “love is blind”.
In fact, while we can guess the meanings of some words based on the context of the plays, experts still aren’t clear about their meanings, including these five.
- Braid – In All’s Well That Ends Well Diana says “Frenchmen are so braid”. It’s a line that’s puzzled scholars but some have suggested it comes from the Old Scots word “braidie”, which means cunning.
- Eftest – The character of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing uses mistaken words throughout the play. The problem with the phrase “yea, marry, that’s the eftest way” is that it’s unclear whether marrying is being suggested as convenient, quick, or something else entirely.
- Armgaunt – The word appears in the opening of Anthony & Cleopatra to describe Marc Antony’s steed. Two suggestions have been put forward for this one claiming that it means “slim-limbed” or “armoured”.
- Balk’d – The line “ten thousand bold Scots, two-and-twenty knights, balk’d in their own blood” has been debated by editors who are unsure what “balk’d” means. Balk is often used to mean a mound or ridge, but in this context, it doesn’t fit. Some suggest it means “baulk”, while others think it’s a misspelling of “baked”.
- Wappened – In Timon of Athens, a widow is described as “wappened”. While the meaning is unclear, it’s thought that it can be used in place of “exhausted” or “worn out”.
As well as language, Shakespeare continues to influence theatres, films, books and more. So, to mark Shakespeare Day, why not pick up one of his plays or a modern work inspired by one of his stories?