William Shakespeare and the development of the English language

The Bard is not highly popular with college students these days. In fact, he has rarely been popular, although his genius is universally recognized.

As a student, you might go to one of his plays (because it’s required or you’re getting extra credit), but you’d rather be buried in a toxic waste dump than be caught reading his stuff.

It’s obscure, opaque, convoluted.

And loquacious (look it up).

Words, words, words. That’s what you get with Shakespeare. Lots and lots of words. He goes on and on, sometimes about the smallest point. There’s plenty of action in his plays, but he slows it down with all the words.

Shakespeare had an extensive vocabulary. In all of his plays and poetry (the ones that we have), there are about 30,000 different words. The well-educated person of today knows about 15,000, and we use far fewer than that.

But the ones we do us, particularly in our everyday speech — well, many of those originated with Shakespeare. Consider the following expressions:

more in sorrow than in anger

vanished into thin air

refused to budge

played fast and loose

tower of strength

hoodwinked

fair play

cold comfort

too much of a good thing

fool’s paradise

bag and baggage

high time

the game is up

the truth will out

if the truth were known

send him packing

laughing stock

The list could go on and on. (By the way, it comes from English journalist Bernard Levin’s book Enthusiasms.) These expressions — many of which are now considered clichés — first appeared in Shakespeare’s work. They weren’t clichés when he wrote them, of course. They were fresh expressions, uses, and combinations of words that no one had ever thought of before.

And they were so good that people remembered them and kept using them.

Hephzibah Anderson, writing for the British Broadcasting Corporation website in 2014 on the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, said:

. . . during his 52 years on earth, he enriched the English language in ways so profound it’s almost impossible to fully gauge his impact. Without him, our vocabulary would be just too different. He gave us uniquely vivid ways in which to express hope and despair, sorrow and rage, love and lust. Even if you’ve never read one of his sonnets or seen a play – even if you’ve never so much as watched a movie adaptation – you’re likely to have quoted him unwittingly. It’s almost impossible to avoid.

And here’s a four-minute video on 10 words invented by Shakespeare:

 

If we’re smart, we’ll listen very closely to what Shakespeare has to say and the way he says it. We might learn a thing or two.


Note: This essay was originally written for an introductory course in writing (MC 102) that I taught for many years at the University of Alabama. It has been edited and expanded for this post.

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Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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