Shakespeare’s Words: The Good, The Bad & The Underappreciated

Anyone who has studied William Shakespeare for more than ten minutes knows that the guy really had a way with words. It’s kind of his thing, after all. When there wasn’t a word for what he wanted to say, he just made it up, and people accepted it? Sure, when Shakespeare does it, it is literature. When I do it, I am ‘in need of some serious editing’. Double standards here.

Anyway, Willy Shakes was responsible for a lot of new stuff. There is much debate as to whether he did invent the words he’s credited with, as language is a transient thing, and it is argued that audiences of his time didn’t have any trouble understanding his plays because they knew the words that he was using. One thing is certain though; if he didn’t make them up, he was at least the first one to call dibs, which is almost the same thing, and he had the idea of jotting them down. The man knew what he was about.

Shakespeare can lay claim to over 1700 words, which is not an insignificant number. Some of his creations are words that you cannot imagine the language ever being without. What would we have done if he didn’t invent words like ‘bedroom’, ‘blanket’ and ‘eyeball’? What word did they use for the start of the day if Shakespeare was the one to invent ‘dawn’? What did people call ‘elbows’ before Shakespeare got to them? These are all questions that haunt me. And I like to think he would be pleased with the inventiveness of humans through the ages, who turn his words like ‘bedazzled’ into interesting new constructs like ‘vajazzled’. Imagine his amusement at how many times someone who works in a coffee shop hears his word ‘skim milk’ over the course of a day. No matter what the language pedants say, Shakespeare – the most famous of English writers – couldn’t fail to approve of the way humans take language and adapt it. Next time someone criticises you for your use of slang, or tells you that ‘lol’ is not an actual word, tell them that Shakespeare told you it was okay. No one argues with the Bard.

If he was great at making stuff up though, Shakespeare did also hit some ‘bumps’ (another of his words, by the way). You can’t win them all, and I think we can let him off for just being a have-a-go- hero. So here now are three of my favourite words he invented that didn’t hit the dizzy heights of a place in everyday language.

You can probably guess what this word means without too much trouble, and you might be glad that it didn’t take off, because at least your mum couldn’t use it to talk about you behind your back. It means a person who, quite simply, stays in bed. The nurse in Romeo and Juliet uses it to criticise Juliet for laying about when she should be up doing things like sneaking around behind her family’s backs and mooning over Romeo. I think this shows that teens have had no luck with their authority figures for probably the whole of time, and it also surprises me that the word hasn’t had more luck. People LOVE ways to criticise the young, after all.

This word is used in Macbeth, quite literally to describe a wood full of rooks. Maybe. Some scholars say it means something else, but I like to think that it is a word that does what it says on the tin. It’s quite unassuming compared to some of Shakespeare’s more wacky creations, but I like it because it feels very modern. It is a word that could come to the mind of any person, standing on a battlement of a castle, watching a load of rooks settle into a tree. It takes no great leap of inventiveness to say that it is ‘rooky’. I have a clear memory of warning a person away from a park bench in the summer because it was ‘waspy’. They knew immediately what I meant, and everyone came away happy. ‘Rooky’ is one of those words. Anyone would feel pleased to use such a word, and it sound good on the ear. Sometimes, Shakespeare knew that less was more.

A very useful word that I think has a place in the language today. Used in The Tempest, the word describes those little half smiles that people dredge up, even when they don’t feel like smiling. You know the sort. A smilet is what a cashier has frozen on her face when she has to pretend she is enjoying the attentions of the middle aged man that she is serving. A smilet is the look on your face when your boss asks you to make a phone call instead of sending an email. A smilet is what happens when your friend won’t stop banging on about a TV show that they are trying to force you to watch. See what I mean? Very useful, and immediately descriptive. Women in particular could make great use of this word.

I think English is much poorer as a language for not using these words, and I will make it my own personal goal to have incorporated all of them into my own speech by the time Shakespeare’s birthday rolls around next year. The time for ‘smilet’ is more than overdue!

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