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The Bard’s influence on the English language lives on in the words we use, the songs we listen to, and the books we read. Writer Charlotte Montague explains his long-lasting impact.
Text by: Charlotte Montague
Country: England

acbeth, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet: William Shakespeare’s characters are considered to be some of the richest and best developed in English literature. The Bard, as he is also known, also had a phenomenal impact on the writers who came after him: Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, and Wilfred Owen are among his many admirers. But Shakespeare influenced more than character development and plot. In fact, he is directly responsible for the introduction of hundreds of words into the English language.

Shakespeare did not go to university —for which he was often mocked by other writers —but his command of language was impressive. He was able to identify words and phrases from other languages, most notably French, and ‘anglicise’ them, creating a wider range of shades and colours of language to make his plays as precise and meaningful as possible.

He also used his knowledge of English and Latin grammar to change English words more subtly by adding prefixes and suffixes. He even played around with word classes, turning nouns into verbs, verbs into adjectives and so on. This playful, original approach to language arguably sets Shakespeare apart as the greatest writer of the English language. Without his striking, startling vocabulary and his beautiful phrases, Lear, Juliet, and even Hamlet could never have been so memorable and relevant.

But do Shakespeare’s contributions hold up today, more than 400 years after he wrote his last play? According to the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, Shakespeare was directly responsible for contributing over 3,000 words to the English language.

In the 1950s it was believed that all of these words were his own work, but recent advances in technology have allowed scholars to search older texts more easily and to discover prior uses of many of these terms. As a result, recent estimates of Shakespeare’s direct contributions are more conservative, ranging from 280 to 1,700. However, whether we put the number at 200 or at 1,700, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s revised number, it can’t be denied that Shakespeare’s contribution to the vocabulary we use is huge.

This is especially true when we consider how many of these are still used today. Have you ever described yourself as ‘gloomy’ when you were feeling down or unhappy? Have you been ‘bedazzled’ by someone particularly attractive and alluring? ‘Generous’, ‘lonely’, ‘majestic’, or ‘impartial’? Shakespeare directly contributed all of these words. In fact, in daily conversation, you’re likely using at least one of the words attributed to him.

Why does Shakespeare get credit for words he didn’t coin? The Bard lived at a time when language was much more fluid than it is now. There were no dictionaries and therefore no right or wrong ways of spelling or saying things. New words and phrases would come and go as fashions or habits changed. At the time, most new words evolved naturally, entering into everyday usage with no way to find out where they originated from.

Consider the introduction of the word ‘selfie’. We know its first recorded use was in 2002 in Australia, but we have no way to find out who first came up with it. As a result, our best option is to attribute its introduction to the first person who popularised it in written form. This was the case with new words in the 1500s and 1600s too, and so Shakespeare gets the credit.

This doesn’t diminish Shakespeare’s talent. Yes, these were other people’s words, and it’s likely that they were used in other people’s works as well. But it was through Shakespeare’s plays that the new words entered the public consciousness and, more importantly, stayed there.

As Shakespeare’s friend Ben Jonson famously wrote, The Bard was a writer “not of an age, but for all time”. He was, quite simply, better than his competitors and so the words that he used endured, while the words of others were lost to history. His characters are rich, his stories—while occasionally borrowed and adapted from other sources—are engaging and depict the human condition in ways that, arguably, no other writer of the time could manage.

More than just inventing new words, Shakespeare also played around with language to express ideas as vividly and precisely as he needed. Along with all the borrowed and invented words, his plays are full of metaphors and idioms which enrich the sense of setting and make the characters seem real and fresh. Like his word choices, his well-chosen use of metaphor lives on in many popular English phrases. In fact, most people quote Shakespeare multiple times a day, without even realising it.

When people refer to jealousy as the ‘green-eyed monster’ they are quoting Iago from ‘Othello’. When someone insists they were sent on a ‘wild goose chase’ they repeat ‘Romeo and Juliet’s’ Mercutio, and ‘fair play’ came from Miranda in ‘The Tempest’. Some scholars even attribute the age-old ‘knock-knock’ joke to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Over and over again, when we want to express something in a humorous, poignant or memorable way, we reach for the language of Shakespeare.

This trend is not restricted to everyday language. Shakespearean phrases turn up constantly in popular modern culture, from modern adaptations of his works, to titles of books and songs. Shakespeare is everywhere. It’s no coincidence that singers as varied as Nick Lowe with ‘Cruel to Be Kind’, Mumford and Sons with ‘Sigh No More’, and Iron Maiden with ‘Where Eagles Dare’ have taken memorable snippets from Shakespeare’s plays to present their music in an unforgettable and striking manner.

Shakespeare’s influence on language can’t be restricted simply to the words he used. His attitude towards language and style also had a phenomenal impact on the writers who followed him. Great writers as diverse as Agatha Christie, Philip K. Dick, and Jasper Fforde have also used Shakespeare’s work in their own titles.

One of the most famous among these writers is Dickens, who was so fascinated by Shakespeare’s work that he bought a house on Gad’s Hill, Kent, based on its association with Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV, Part I’.

Dickens described Shakespeare as ‘the great master who knew everything’ and the influence of Shakespeare is apparent in much of his work. Like Shakespeare, Dickens favours lively, rich characters and detailed, metaphorical language. There are also many allusions to Shakespeare in his work, from ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ to ‘Great Expectations’. Similar, modern day influences can be seen in texts as diverse as Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight,’ Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Talented Mister Ripley’, and Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, another text which even uses a Shakespearean quotation for its title.

Shakespeare’s lasting impact on the English language can be seen in every facet, from general, everyday conversations to the creation of new books, plays and music. Shakespeare gives us new words, but more importantly, new ways to play with those words and express ourselves more accurately, more humorously, or just a little more cleverly!

Facts about Shakespeare:

● There is no record of Shakespeare’s birth, but his date of baptism is 26th April, 1564.

● Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, and his birthday is usually celebrated on St. George’s Day, 23rd April.

● Shakespeare was just 18 when he married the much older Anne Hathaway in 1582.

● Shakespeare had three children: Susanna, Hamnet and Judith.

● Shakespeare’s company built The Globe in Southwark, London, on the south bank of the River Thames in 1599.

● According to Victorian word expert F. Max Fuller, Shakespeare used around 15,000 different words in his plays, more than John Milton and the Old Testament combined!

● Shakespeare died on 23rd April, 1616 within a month of writing his will.

● In his will, Shakespeare left his wife the ‘second best bed’. No one seems able to agree whether this is an insult or a loving gesture.


Shakespeare on the tips of our tongue

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon around 26th April, 1564 and died on 23rd April, 1616. He is often called The Bard and is famous for the many plays he has written.
He is also known for his influence on the English language, which lives on in the words we use today. Shakespeare did not go to university, but his command of the English language was impressive. According to the Royal Shakespeare Company, he is responsible for the introduction of over 3,000 words into English.

Some of the words that are still used today are, for example: ' gloomy ' to describe feeling down or unhappy, ' bedazzled ', ' generous ', ' lonely ', or ' majestic ', to name a few.

But Shakespeare did more than just invent new words; he also played around with language to express ideas more vividly and precisely. Thanks to Shakespeare, the English language is a little bit richer and livelier and a lot more humorous.

Aside from his direct contribution to language, his characters are some of the richest and best developed in English literature. And he also had a huge impact on the writers who came after him like Dickens, Agatha Christie and even musicians like Iron Maiden.



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Shakespeare on the tips of our tongues



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