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).

13 Fascinating Word Origin Stories (That Are Completely Untrue)

karandaev/iStock via Getty Images
karandaev/iStock via Getty Images

Sometimes when the true origin of a word isn’t known (and sometimes even when it is), entirely fictitious theories and tall tales emerge to try to fill in the gap. These so-called folk etymologies often provide neater, cleverer, and wittier explanations than any genuine etymology ever could, all of which fuels their popularity and makes them all the more likely to be passed around—but sadly, there’s just no escaping the fact that they’re not true. Thirteen of these etymological tall-tales, taken from word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, are explained and debunked here.

1. Bug

According to the story, back in the days when computers were vast room-filling machines containing hundreds of moving parts, one of the earliest recorded malfunctions was caused by an insect making its home on one of the delicate mechanisms inside—and hence, all computer malfunctions since have been known as bugs.

This well-known tale apparently has its roots in an incident recorded in London’s Pall Mall Gazette in 1889, which described how Thomas Edison spent two consecutive nights trying to identify "a bug in his phonograph"—"an expression," the article explained, "for solving a difficulty, and implying that some imaginary insect has secreted itself inside and is causing all the trouble." All in all, it appears the original computer bug was sadly a metaphorical one.

2. Cabal

A cabal is a group or sect of like-minded people, often with the implication that those involved are conspiring or working together for some clandestine purpose. In 17th century England, the Cabal Ministry was precisely that: An exclusive group of the five closest and most important members of King Charles II’s Parliament, who, in 1670, signed a treaty allying England and France in a potential war against the Netherlands. The five signatories were Sir Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley, and Lord Lauderdale, and it’s the first letters of their five names and titles that formed the cabal itself.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. Cabal is actually a derivative of caballa, the Latin spelling of kabbalah (a tradition of Jewish mysticism), and the fact that these five signatories’ names could be manipulated to spell out the word cabal is a complete coincidence.

3. Golf

Golf doesn’t stand for "gentlemen only ladies forbidden," nor for "gentlemen only, ladies fly-away-home," and nor, for that matter, for any other means of telling someone to go away that begins with the letter F. Instead, it’s thought to be a derivative of an old Scots word for a cudgel or a blow to the head, gouf, which in turn is probably derived from Dutch. The earliest known reference to golf in English? An Act of the Scottish Parliament, passed on March 6, 1457, that demanded that "football and golf should be utterly condemned and stopped," because they interfered with the military’s archery practice.

4. Kangaroo

A popular story claims that when the English explorer Captain Cook first arrived in Australia in the late 18th century, he spotted a peculiar-looking animal bounding about in the distance and asked a native Aborigine what it was called. The Aborigine, having no idea what Cook had just said, replied, "I don’t understand"—which, in his native language, apparently sounded something like kangaroo. Cook then returned to his ship and wrote in his journal on 4 August 1770 that, "the animals which I have before mentioned [are] called by the Natives kangooroo." The fact that Cook’s journals give us the earliest written reference to the word kangaroo is true, but sadly the story of the oblivious Aborigine is not.

5. Marmalade

When Mary I of Scotland fell ill while on a trip to France in the mid-1500s, she was served a sweet jelly-like concoction made from stewed fruit. At the same time, she overheard the French maids and nurses who were caring for her muttering that "Madame est malade" ("ma’am is unwell"), and in her confusion she muddled the two things up—and marmalade as we know it today gained its name. As neat a story as this is, it’s unsurprisingly completely untrue—not least because the earliest reference to marmalade in English dates from 60 years before Mary was even born.

6. Nasty

Thomas Nast was a 19th century artist and caricaturist probably best known today for creating the Republican Party’s elephant logo. In the mid-1800s, however, Nast was America’s foremost satirical cartoonist, known across the country for his cutting and derisive caricatures of political figures. Anything described as nasty was ultimately said to be as scathing or as cruel as his drawings. Nast eventually became known as the "Father of the American Cartoon," but he certainly wasn’t the father of the word nasty—although its true origins are unknown, its earliest record dates from as far back as the 14th century.

7. Posh

In the early 1900s, the wealthiest passengers on cruise ships and liners could afford to pay for a port-side cabin on the outward journey and a starboard cabin on the homeward journey, thereby ensuring that they either had the best uninterrupted views of the passing coastlines, or else had a cabin that avoided the most intense heat of the sun. These "port out starboard home" passengers are often claimed to have been the first posh people—but a far more likely explanation is that posh was originally simply a slang name for cash.

8. Pumpernickel

The bogus story behind pumpernickel is that it comes from the French phrase pain pour Nicol, a quote attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte that essentially means "bread only good enough for horses." In fact, the true origin of pumpernickel is even more peculiar: pumper is the German equivalent of "fart" and nickel is an old nickname for a devil or imp, literally making pumpernickel something along the lines of "fart-goblin." Why? Well, no one is really sure—but one theory states that the bread might have originally been, shall we say, hard to digest.

9. Sh*t

Back when horse manure (and everything else, for that matter) used to be transported by ship, the methane gas it gives off tended to collect in the lowest parts of the vessel—until a passing crewman carrying a lantern had the misfortune to walk by and blow the ship to pieces. Did this ever happen? Who knows. But one thing we do know is that sh*t is certainly not an acronym of "ship high in transit," a motto often mistakenly said to have been printed on crates of manure to ensure that they were stored high and dry while being moved from port to port. In fact, sh*t—like most of our best cursewords—is an ancient Anglo-Saxon word dating from at least 1000 years ago.

10. Sincere

Sincere is derived from the Latin sincerus, meaning "pure" or "genuine." Despite this relatively straightforward history, however, a myth has since emerged that claims sincere is actually a derivative of the Latin sine cera, meaning "without wax," and supposed to refer to cracks or chips in sculptures being filled in with wax; to Ancient Greeks giving statues made of wax rather than stone to their enemies; or to documents or wine bottles without wax seals being potentially tampered or tainted. None of these stories, of course, is true.

11. Sirloin

Sirloin steak takes its name from sur, the French word for "above" (as in surname), and so literally refers to the fact that it is the cut of meat found "above the loin" of a cow. When sur– began to be spelled sir– in English in the early 1600s, however, a popular etymology emerged claiming that this cut of meat was so delicious that it had been knighted by King Charles II.

12. Snob

Different theories claim that on lists of ferry passengers, lists of university students, and even on lists of guests at royal weddings, the word snob would once have been written beside the names of all those individuals who had been born sine nobilitate, or "without nobility." The Oxford English Dictionary rightly calls this theory "ingenious but highly unlikely," and instead suggests that snob was probably originally a slang nickname for a shoemaker’s apprentice, then a general word for someone of poor background, and finally a nickname for a pretentious or snobbish social climber.

13. Sword

In the New Testament, "the word of God" is described as "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). This quote is apparently the origin of a popular misconception that sword is derived from a corruption of "God’s word." Admittedly, this kind of formation is not without precedent (the old exclamations gadzooks! and zounds! are corruptions of "God’s hooks" and "God’s wounds," respectively) but sword is actually a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, sweord, which is probably ultimately derived from an even earlier Germanic word meaning "cut" or "pierce."

This list first ran in 2014 and was republished in 2019.

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12 Old-Fashioned Insults We Should Bring Back

mrtom-uk/iStock via Getty Images
mrtom-uk/iStock via Getty Images

With the help of social media, slang words and phrases can gain momentum around the globe in what feels like mere minutes. But trendy terms were making splashes long before YouTubers were stanning guyliner-wearing pop stars who slay all day and woke Gen Z-ers were tweeting their hot takes about fake news, mansplaining, and more.

In a new study, digital subscription service Readly analyzed data from its magazine archives to identify some popular terms from years past and present and pinpoint exactly when they stopped appearing in print. Among more positive terms like crinkum-crankum (“elaborate decoration or detail”) and sweetmeat (“item of confectionery or sweet food”) lies a treasure trove of delicious insults that have all but disappeared—and could definitely add some color to your future squabbles.

View Readly’s full timeline of terms here, and read on to find out which insults were our favorites.

1. Loathly

This alternate form of loathsome, meaning “repulsive,” had an impressive run as an insult for nearly 900 centuries, starting in 1099 and not falling out of public favor until 1945.

2. Purblind

According to the Merriam-Webster entry, purblind originally meant “blind” during the 1400s, and later became a way to indicate shortsightedness or lack of insight.

3. Poltroon

The next time you encounter an “utter coward,” you can call them a poltroon. They’re probably too much of a poltroon to ask you what poltroon means.

4. Slugabed

Though this term for “a person who stays in bed late” hasn’t been used much since the early 20th century, it’s the perfect insult for your roommate who perpetually hits the snooze button.

5. Mooncalf

This obscure term for a foolish person also once meant a "fickle, unstable person," according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

6. Fainéant

Fainéant derives from fait-nient, French for “doing nothing.” Its tenure as a popular insult for “an idle or ineffective person” lasted from 1619 to 1670, but the fainéants themselves didn’t disappear with the term—there’s one in practically every group project.

7. Otiose

If you want to pack an extra punch when you accuse someone of being a fainéant, you could also call them otiose, meaning “lazy” or “slothful.”

8. Scaramouch

In Italy’s commedia dell’arte—a type of theatre production with ensemble casts, improvisation, and masks—Scaramouch was a stock character easily identified by his boastful-yet-cowardly manner. Much like scrooge is now synonymous with miser, the word scaramouch was used from the 1600s through the 1800s to describe any boastful coward. Wondering why the obsolete expression sounds so familiar? The band Queen borrowed it for their operatic masterpiece “Bohemian Rhapsody,” though scaramouches aren’t necessarily known for doing the fandango.

9. Quidnunc

From the Latin phrase quid nunc, or “What now?”, a quidnunc is an “inquisitive, bossy person” who’s constantly sniffing around for the next juicy morsel of gossip. Usage dropped off in the early 20th century, but you can always bring it back for that friend who unabashedly reads your text messages over your shoulder.

10. Sciolist

A sciolist is someone “who pretends to be knowledgeable.” Though they might fool a mooncalf or two, any expert would see through their facade.

11. and 12. Rapscallion and Scapegrace

Rapscallion and scapegrace are both wonderful ways to offend a mischievous person—if such a person would even be offended—that overlapped in popularity between the 1700s and the 1900s. While scapegrace refers to an incorrigible character who literally escaped God’s grace, rapscallion is an embellished version of the identically defined (but rather less fun to say) word rascal.

[h/t Readly]

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