20 Words We Owe to Shakespeare

Getty Images/Edward Gooch
Getty Images/Edward Gooch

No high school English curriculum is complete without a mandatory dose of William Shakespeare, and no American teenager makes it to graduation without whining about how boring it is to learn about iambic pentameter. As contemporary speakers of the English language, however, they might be interested to learn how much the Bard of Avon had in common with the generations that popularized the acronyms LOL and OMG and reinvented the 1940s slang term “hipster.” Endlessly imaginative and not overly concerned with grammatical convention, Shakespeare’s scripts contain over 2200 never-before-seen words—a diverse collection of loan-words from foreign languages, compound words from existing English terms, nouns turned into verbs, and creatively applied prefixes—many of which have entered into everyday language. Here are 20 examples of words we can thank Shakespeare for.

1. Addiction: Othello, Act II, Scene II

“It is Othello's pleasure, our noble and valiant general, that, upon certain tidings now arrived, importing the mere perdition of the Turkish fleet, every man put himself into triumph; some to dance, some to make bonfires, each man to what sport and revels his addiction leads him.” – Herald

If not for that noble and valiant general and his playwright, our celebrity news coverage might be sorely lacking.

2. Arch-villain: Timon of Athens, Act V, Scene I

“You that way and you this, but two in company; each man apart, all single and alone, yet an arch-villain keeps him company.” – Timon

With the added prefix of arch-, meaning more extreme than others of the same type, Shakespeare was able to distinguish the baddest of the bad.

3. Assassination: Macbeth, Act I, Scene VII

“If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly: if the assassination could trammel up the consequence, and catch with his surcease success.” – Macbeth

Though the term “assassin” had been observed in use prior to the Scottish play, it seems apt that the work introduced yet another term for murder most foul.

4. Bedazzled: The Taming of the Shrew, Act IV, Scene V

“Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes, that have been so bedazzled with the sun that everything I look on seemeth green.” – Katherina

A word first used to describe the particular gleam of sunlight is now used to sell rhinestone-embellished jeans. Maybe poetry really is dead.

5. Belongings: Measure for Measure, Act I, Scene I

“Thyself and thy belongings are not thine own so proper as to waste thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.” – Duke Vincentio

People prior to Shakespeare’s time did own things; they just referred to them by different words.

6. Cold-blooded: King John, Act III, Scene I

“Thou cold-blooded slave, hast thou not spoke like thunder on my side, been sworn my soldier, bidding me depend upon thy stars, thy fortune and thy strength, and dost thou now fall over to my fores?” – Constance

Beyond its literal meaning, the 17th-century play initiated a metaphorical use for the term that is now most often used to describe serial killers and vampires—two categories which, of course, need not be mutually exclusive.

7. Dishearten: Henry V, Act IV, Scene I

“Therefore when he sees reason of fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are: yet, in reason, no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army.” – King Henry V

The opposite of “hearten,” a word already extant at the time of Shakespeare’s writing, “dishearten” was most appropriately first utilized in print by King Henry V, who didn’t let insurmountable odds at the Battle of Agincourt get him down.

8. Eventful: As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII

“Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” - Jaques

If all the world’s a stage, it’s safe to assume that an event or two is taking place.

9. Eyeball: The Tempest, Act I, Scene II

“Go make thyself like a nymph o' the sea: be subject to no sight but thine and mine, invisible to every eyeball else.” – Prospero

Shakespeare’s protagonist Prospero, though no medical doctor, can claim to be the first fictional character to name those round objects with which we see.

10. Fashionable: Troilus and Cressida, Act III, Scene III

“For time is like a fashionable host that slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand, and with his arms outstretch'd, as he would fly, grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles, and farewell goes out sighing.” – Ulysses

And with just 11 letters, centuries of debate over what’s hot or not began.

11. Half-blooded/hot-blooded: King Lear, Act V, Scene III/ Act III, Scene III

Half-blooded fellow, yes.” – Albany

“Why, the hot-blooded France, that dowerless took our youngest born, I could as well be brought to knee his throne, and, squire-like; pension beg to keep base life afoot.” – Lear

As is the tradition in Shakespearean tragedy, nearly everyone in King Lear dies, so the linguistic fascination here with blood is unsurprising, to say the least.

12. Inaudible: All’s Well That Ends Well, Act V, Scene III

“Let's take the instant by the forward top; for we are old, and on our quick'st decrees the inaudible and noiseless foot of Time steals ere we can effect them.” – King of France

One of a number of words (invulnerable, indistinguishable, inauspicious, among others) which Shakespeare invented only in the sense of adding a negative in- prefix where it had never been before.

13. Ladybird: Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Scene III

“What, lamb! What, ladybird! God forbid! Where's this girl? What, Juliet!” – Nurse

Although the Oxford English Dictionary notes that this particular term of endearment has fallen into disuse, maybe it’s about time for its comeback. Valentine’s Day is coming up, after all.

14. Manager: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene I

“Where is our usual manager of mirth? What revels are in hand? Is there no play to ease the anguish of a torturing hour?” – King Theseus

If not for Shakespeare, workday complaining in the office break room just wouldn’t be the same.

15. Multitudinous: Macbeth, Act II, Scene II

“No, this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas in incarnadine, making the green one red.” – Macbeth

“Multitudinous” may not be the most appropriate synonym when the phrase “a lot” starts to crop up too often in your writing, but it’s certainly the one with the most letters.

16. New-fangled: Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act I, Scene I

“At Christmas I no more desire a rose than wish a snow in May's new-fangled mirth.” – Biron

Ironically, this word sounds old-fashioned if used today.

17. Pageantry: Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Act V, Scene II

“This, my last boon, give me, for such kindness must relieve me, that you aptly will suppose what pageantry, what feats, what shows, what minstrelsy, and pretty din, the regent made in Mytilene to greet the king.” – Gower

Although modern scholars generally agree that Shakespeare only appears to have written the second half of the play, this newly invented term for an extravagant ceremonial display appears in the section definitively authored by the Bard.

18. Scuffle: Antony and Cleopatra, Act I, Scene I

“His captain's heart, which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst the buckles on his breast, reneges all temper, and is become the bellows and the fan to cool a gipsy's lust.” – Philo

Another example of an existing verb that Shakespeare decided could stand up just as well as a noun.

19. Swagger: Henry V, Act II, Scene IV/A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act III, Scene I

“An't please your majesty, a rascal that swaggered with me last night.” – Williams

“What hempen home-spuns have we swaggering here, so near the cradle of the fairy queen?” – Puck

By transitive property, Shakespeare is responsible for Justin Bieber’s “swag.”

20. Uncomfortable: Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, Scene V

“Despised, distressed, hated, martyr'd, kill'd! Uncomfortable time, why camest thou now to murder, murder our solemnity?” - Capulet

Un- was another prefix Shakespeare appended to adjectives with a liberal hand. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy in which a father mourns his daughter’s suicide, “uncomfortable” seems to have originated with a slightly more drastic sense than how we use it now.

Of course, just because the first written instances of these terms appeared in Shakespeare’s scripts doesn’t preclude the possibility that they existed in the oral tradition prior to his recording them, but as Shakespeare might have said, it was high time (The Comedy of Errors) for such household words (Henry V).

Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Synonym?

iStock.com/netopaek
iStock.com/netopaek

Some of the most frequently used words in the English language must have been created by someone with a devilish sense of humor. The word monosyllabic isn’t one syllable, long is only four letters, lisp is difficult to pronounce if you have a lisp, and synonym doesn’t have any synonyms. Or does it?

The answer to that last question is a bit complicated. Thesaurus.com lists metonym as a synonym of synonym, but their meanings aren’t exactly the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines synonym as “a word or phrase that means the same, or almost the same, as another in the same language.” Metonym, on the other hand, is defined as “a word or expression which is used as a substitute for another word or expression with which it is in a close semantic relationship.” For example, the crown can be used to refer to the queen, and Washington sometimes refers to the U.S. government.

There is another possibility, though: poecilonym. This is probably the closest synonym of synonym, although it’s antiquated and rarely used. David Grambs, a lexicographer for American Heritage and Random House, included it in his 1997 book The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. The word is pronounced PEE-si-lo-nim, according to Grambs, who pays homage to its obscurity. “Maybe we could all use a few spanking old poecilonyms,” Grambs writes. “Poecilonym? It's an old synonym for synonym that you'll find in these pages. But many words in this dictionary have no real counterparts in today's English.”

Allen’s Synonyms and Antonyms from 1920 also lists poecilonym and another word—polyonym—as synonyms of synonym. However, it says both of these terms are rare. So technically, there are two other words that have the same meaning as synonym, but it’s a tough position to argue when those words are no longer in modern usage.

To add another dimension to this question, some have argued that there are no true synonyms at all, as every single word carries a different shade of meaning. “Even though the meanings of two words may be the same or nearly the same, they almost never are the same in connotation, distribution, and frequency,” according to Dictionary.com. “House and home may be offered as synonyms for each other, but we all know that they are not the same.”

So if you want to start using poecilonym or polyonym in place of synonym, you’d technically be correct—but don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re talking about.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

15 Long-Lost Words To Revive This Christmas

iStock.com/duncan1890
iStock.com/duncan1890

Nog. Tidings. Wassail. Every time Christmas rolls around it brings with it its own vocabulary of words you barely hear the rest of the year. But while words derived from ancient English ales (like the nog in eggnog) and Middle English greetings (wassail is thought to derive from a Germanic phrase meaning “good health!”) are one thing, some choice festive words haven’t stood the test of time, and are basically unknown outside of the dustiest corners of the dictionary.

Here are 15 long-lost and long-forgotten words to get you through the holiday season.

1. Ninguid

Derived from Latin, a landscape that is ninguid is snow-covered. And if that’s what your walk to work looks like over the festive period, you might also need to know that to meggle is to trudge laboriously through snow. (A peck-of-apples, meanwhile, is a fall on ice.)

2. Crump

That crunching sound you make walking on partially frozen snow is called crumping.

3. Hiemate

Hibernate is sleeping throughout the entire winter; hiemate is to spend winter somewhere.

4. Yuleshard

As another word for the festive period, Yule comes via Old English from jol, an ancient Scandinavian word for a series of end-of-year festivities. A yuleshard—also called a yule-jade (jade being an insult once upon a time)—is someone who leaves a lot of work still to be done on Christmas Eve night.

5. Yule-Hole

And the yule-hole is the (usually makeshift) hole you need to move your belt to after you’ve eaten a massive meal.

6. Belly-Cheer

Dating from the 1500s, belly-cheer or belly-timber is a brilliantly evocative word for fine food or gluttonous eating.

7. Doniferous

If you’re doniferous then you’re carrying a present. The act of offering a present is called oblation, which originally was (and, in some contexts, still is) a religious term referring specifically to the presentation of money or donation of goods to the church. But since the 15th century it’s been used more loosely to refer to the action of offering or presenting any gift or donation, or, in particular, a gratuity.

8. Pourboire

Speaking of gratuities, a tip or donation of cash intended to be spent on drink is a pourboire—French, literally, for “for drink.” Money given in lieu of a gift, meanwhile, has been known as present-silver since the 1500s.

9. Toe-Cover

A cheap and totally useless present? In 1940s slang, that was a toe-cover.

10. Xenium

A gift given to a houseguest, or a gift given by a guest to their host, is called a xenium.

11. Scurryfunge

Probably distantly related to words like scour or scourge, scurryfunge first appeared in the late 18th century, with meanings of “to lash” or, depending on region, “to scour.” By the mid-1900s, however, things had changed: perhaps in allusion to scrubbing or working hard enough to abrade a surface, scurryfunge came to mean “to hastily tidy a house” before unexpected company arrive.

12. Quaaltagh

Quaaltagh was actually borrowed into English in the 1800s from Manx, the Celtic-origin language spoken on the Isle of Man—a tiny island located halfway between Britain and Ireland in the Irish Sea. It was on the Isle of Man that festive tradition dictates that the identity of the first person you see (or the first to enter your house) on Christmas or New Year morning will have some bearing on the events of the year to come. And in Manx culture, the person you meet on that early-morning encounter is called the quaaltagh.

13. Lucky-Bird

We’re more likely to call them a first-footer these days, but according to old Yorkshire folklore the first person across the threshold of your home on New Year’s morning is the lucky-bird. And just like the quaaltagh, tradition dictates that the identity of the lucky-bird has an important bearing on the success of the year to come: Men are the most fortuitous lucky-birds; depending on region, either dark-haired or light-haired men might be favored (but dark-haired is more common). Other regional variations claimed the man had to be a bachelor, had to bring a gift of coal (though by the 1880s whisky was increasingly popular), and/or had to have a high arch on the foot. People with a suitable combination for their region could “become almost professional,” according to the Leeds Mercury Weekly Supplement.

14. Apolausticism

Derived from the Greek word for “to enjoy,” apolausticism is a long-lost 19th-century word for a total devotion to enjoying yourself.

15. Crapulence

Once all the festive dust and New Year confetti has settled, here’s a word for the morning after the night before: crapulence, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, is an 18th-century word for “sickness or indisposition resulting from excess in drinking or eating.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER