Today is Shakespeare’s birthday, as well as the anniversary of his death. Although he lived 400 years ago, the Bard still influences the English we speak today. The Oxford English Dictionary gives him credit for coining more than 2,000 words, though of there’s some dispute over whether or not he actually invented all of them.
How did one man come to have so much influence on the English language? In Shakespeare’s case, it was a combination of luck, talent and craft that allowed him to leave such an enduring legacy behind. To say that Shakespeare “had a way with words” is a serious understatement, of course, but he also had the good fortune to live in a time when the English language was changing rapidly. Wars were being fought, new lands were being explored, and England’s contact with and knowledge of the rest of the world increased tremendously. The English language needed new words to describe all of these changes, and Shakespeare was perfectly positioned to help supply them.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, here are some of the many words Shakespeare (may have) created:
Aerial: First used in Othello to describe the sky on the horizon, where Othello’s ship is expected to emerge.
Arch-villain: You may think of old James Bond movies when you hear this word, but the first “arch-villain” in the English language was actually the corrupt judge Angelo in “Measure for Measure.”
Fashionable: First used by the character Ulysses in “Troilus and Cressida.”
Tranquil: Though the word “tranquility” dates back to Chaucer, Shakespeare is the first person known to have used the adjective “tranquil.”
Downstairs: First used by Prince Hal in King Henry IV.
Pander: In the medieval tragedy “Troilus and Cressida,” Pandare, Pandaro or Pandarus was a character who arranged to have his niece Cressida sleep first with the Trojan warrior Troilus and then with the Greek lord Diomedes. Shakespeare first used “pander” to mean “pimp” in “Henry IV, Part II.”
Majestic: “Majesty” has been in use since the 14th century, but as far as we know, Shakespeare was the first person to use the adjective “majestic.”
Obscene: Yes, Shakespeare coined this word, too, by Anglicizing the old Latin word obscenus.
Sanctimonious: First used by Lucio, in “Measure for Measure:”
“Thou concludest like the sanctimonious pirate, that
went to sea with the Ten Commandments, but scraped
one out of the table.”