Word Nerd: William Shakespeare is a man for all ages

Hamlet (Christopher Moore) and Laertes (Lucas Chartier-Dessert) cross swords in Persephone Productions' Hamlet.

2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of perhaps the most immortal of all writers. It is fitting that the phrase “We all make his praise” is an anagram of William Shakespeare.

Moreover, the “all” in the phrase refers not only to native speakers of English but to all literate people on the planet. Shakespeare’s works have been translated into more than 100 languages and it has been calculated that almost half of the world’s students have studied parts of his œuvre. Ben Jonson’s comment about Shakespeare in the Preface to the First Folio in 1623, “He was not of an age, but for all time” has been vindicated by time.

Literary critic Harold Bloom titled his tome Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human because Shakespeare “went beyond all precedents (even Chaucer) and invented the human as we know it.” Bloom argues that the Bard can be singularly credited for creating the modern person not only in the Western word but throughout all cultures, and he views the Shakespearean characters Hamlet and Falstaff as representing “the inauguration of personality as we have come to recognize it.”

Shakespeare’s contribution to our phraseology is ubiquitous. Observe: We all cite him “without rhyme or reason.” If you are “in a pickle” because you’ve been “eaten out of house and home” by your own “flesh and blood,” or by a “stone-hearted” “blinking idiot” or by “strange bedfellows,” you are quoting Shakespeare. Small wonder you’ve been “hoodwinked” and are “playing fast and loose” and haven’t “slept a wink” and are probably “breathing your last.” Methinks you’ve been “more sinned against than sinning.” While it may be “cold comfort,” it’s also a “foregone conclusion” you are quoting Shakespeare.

The story is told (probably apocryphal) of an adolescent’s response upon seeing a performance of Hamlet stating that the play is “merely a collection of clichés.” Of course when Shakespeare coined expressions such as “brevity is the soul of wit,” “primrose path,” “dog will have its day,” “the lady doth protest too much,” “sweets for the sweet” and “cruel to be kind,” they were newly minted gems.

We sometimes forget because of Shakespeare’s transcendent phraseology that he may also rate as the greatest word creator of all time. To wit, the OED shows that the first evidence of a word is found in his works 1504 times and the first sense of a word appears in his works on 7698 occasions. Examples of the latter are the verbal use of elbow and cow  to mean “jostle” and “intimidate” respectively and admired to mean “praiseworthy” (especially as previously it had meant “wondered about”). The total of the above two categories exceeds his nearest competitor Chaucer by almost 2000. George Gordon, In Shakespeare’s English congratulates Elizabethan writers for their willingness to use “every form of verbal wealth.” Shakespeare was fortunate to live in an era when the language was very fluid. Gordon explains that Shakespeare was able to do what he liked with English grammar because it had no fixed rules and he “drew beauty and power from its imperfections.”

Many words were created by the addition of prefixes and suffixes. Arouse first appears in Henry VI, Part II; premeditated was first used in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and uncomfortable in Romeo and Juliet. Lonely first appears in Coriolanus and reclusive makes its debut in Much Ado About Nothing. Amazement, first found in Titus Andronicus, is one of the first uses of the suffix-ment to form a noun from a Teutonic verb. As a language with deep Germanic roots, English had a long tradition of creating new words through compounding, as German still does. Some of the Bard’s contributions here are barefaced, hot-blooded, lacklustre, foregone, still-born, and skim-milk.

But if English lacked a word that could enhance his writing, Shakespeare invented it, invariably with a Latin root. Because many of these words were polysyllabic with a proclivity to sounding mellifluous, Shakespeare employed them to enhance rhythm. For example, frugal comes from the Latin frugalis and is first seen in The Merry Wives of Windsor: “I was then frugall in my worth.” Castigate derives from the Latin castigare (to correct) and makes its stage entry in Titus Andronicus: “If thou didst put this sour cold habit on to castigate thy pride, ‘twere well.” Courtship is first seen in Love’s Labour’s Lost with the sense of the behaviour befitting the court: “Trim Gallants, full of Courtship and of state.” Besmirch is first seen in Hamlet: “And now no soyle… doth besmirch the virtue of his will.” Shakespeare also borrowed from other Romance languages. Examples here are bandit crafted from Italian bandito and torture fashioned from the French torturer.

Professor Victor Margolin summed up Shakespeare’s linguistic genius succinctly with this pun:  “Shakespeare was great shakes and without peer.”

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