Academia

Whatever Happened to All the Heroes? All the Shakespearos?

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Eugene Volokh doubts not truth to be a liar, but does doubt a common claim about Shakespeare that always made no sense to me either, but I certainly wasn't going to do any research on the matter.

Well, someone has, and, by my troth, it seemed he was but having a virtue assumed for him while having it not:

Shakespeare is often given credit for coining not just memorable phrases, but also hundreds of now-familiar words……

But the recent scanning of early English books in fully searchable format (see, for instance, Chadwyck-Healey's Early English Books Online [EEBO]) lets us test these claims β€” and it appears that many of them are mistaken.

Volokh hits the same point that always bothered me about this: it just seems quite unlikely that a popular playwright would fill his plays with words he made up that no one in his audience of sodden-witted lords had ever heard of before.

It is, after all, use that doth breed habit in a man, and language as well. Or whatever. By gum, with such strategems it seemed he'd get about as far as the Stranglers did when inventing the word "Shakespearos."

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  1. I don’t doubt that many of the words attributed to Shakespeare weren’t actually his, but I bet he did coin a number of his own. It’s tempting, especially when messing around with verse, to make up words. Heck, I do it in my dramatically inferior wordsmithery around here.

  2. ProGLib – your inferior wordsmithery is much better and at a higher discorsical level than most of the rank twaddlenockery pulled off by the abject quibblefuqs and quixelnofish babbletrons that gather hier.

  3. People who call themselves “wordsmith” are a breed of jackass unto themselves. Also, I thought the audience at the Globe was mostly the Great Unwashed of London, not sodden-witted lords.

  4. Haven’t you people ever heard of the OED? That is the definitive source for when a word was first used in the English language. Anytime someone claims that Shakespeare was the first to use this or that word, you can just look it up. Chances are that it is an urban myth and the word appeared before Shakespeare used it. I am surprised that Volkh finds that so surprising.

  5. So he *didnt* invent the word “taint”? Gosh I was sure of that…

    But seriously, isnt the “he didnt invent all them words” point sorta…besides it?

    Meaning, if they looked at the number of different/ rarely used words in the average piece of Shakespere… he was certainly unique. Both for his time, and since then. It’s sorta a pedantic, meaningless case… the variable sense of words and how they’re used is clearly more important than simple coinage. I suspect this is just professorial player-hating.

  6. here is where I made up the word “grammarchy” (meaning grammatical anarchy):

    ftp://www.farceswannamo.com/If_Not_Why_Not_mp3s/

    If you listen closely to the lyrics you hear me namecheck the wonderful made up (not by me, some Atlantic writer I think) word “mondegreen.” No Shakespeare mention in the song (I don’t like him), but I do hit Chomsky and George Bernard Shaw (natch).

    So don’t be a soden witted lord — download some Farces Wanna Mo 2day!

  7. John | October 9, 2007, 11:25am | #

    Haven’t you people ever heard of the OED?

    I like how John can seem to get sorta riled up even over something this silly. πŸ™‚

    the OED, or “Oohwed” as I like to call it, isnt always the ‘definitive’… i think Vok’s point was that the OED is increasinly showing to be wrong now that it’s easier to plumb the depths of older english lit. I remember in college one of my profs got the OED to change some stuff based on research he’d done. He was pretty stoked.

    Why anyone cares who ‘invented’ a word is beyond me.

    I invented the phrase “pillow-biting sally” as a derogatory remark for effeminate kids in 8th grade. A friend of mine in the early 80s came up with “The Motts” as a way of describing something super-awesome.

    (as in, “hey Tony…. I got The Motts!!” =
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-7946699101600926624&q=Motts+Applesauce&total=40&start=0&num=10&so=0&type=search&plindex=1)

    We found out years later lots and lots of people had been using that same exact expression, totally independently. I think thats when i realized that the whole thing was pretty gay.

    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=motts

    My friend sells cool t shirts, one of which is, “Everything you like, I liked 5 years ago”

    This Shakespeare thing seems to be on the same level

  8. John

    I think they are referring to words which were attributed to Shakespeare in the scholarly literature, including the OED. It is the new accessibility of these texts which is finding the earlier usage.

    Also, Shakespeare seems to have had a real “ear” for the language used by the people around him – Fluellen, Glendower, Feste all are very live character ‘types’, because Shakespeare uses language appropriate for the character. It is entirely likely that many of the words “originated” by Shakespeare were already part of some local dialect and he was merely the first to use them in print.

    Undoubtedly, there were some authentic Shakespearean coinages. If a brilliant writer uses a new word in a way that makes it instantly understandable and provides a vivid image for it, the audience will understand it and possibly adopt it.

  9. Gilmore,

    Isn’t that the point of the OED? It is kind of a wikipedia of its day. Average people did the research and wrote the thing and they are happy to be corrected if you can find that 13th Century Norman Land Grant that first used a particular word.

    As far as Shakespeare goes, I don’t think it is that far fetched to think that he invented words. Think of it this way, how many words in the current lexicon first appeared in movies? A whole lot of them I think. The context defines a word for us. In 1976 if you had told someone to “use the force” they would have looked at you like you were nuts. We didn’t have to already know the meaning of the words in order for work of fiction to introduce us to it.

  10. I always love a Stranglers reffernce.

  11. Gawds below, I’ve been wartified! I bet my enemies find this all schadenfreudelicious.

  12. My ears are burning…

  13. Mr Doherty .. All Eugene Volokhs’s are liars .. Shakespeare wrote poems about it.

  14. But seriously – Haven’t Shakespeare scholars always said that he borrowed from various sources ? He had Marlowe killed to cover up all the plagiarism !

  15. The wealth of the English language is due, in part, to the presence of the complete works of Shakespeare and the King James bible in every town and school in the English-speaking world. These two works are our common touchstone and the world would be very different without them.

  16. Most people are uaware that his name was originally “Shakesbootyspear” but people refused to believe that the Olde English pronunciatation was cromulent.

  17. … a popular playwright would fill his plays with words he made up that no(sic) one in his audience of sodden-witted lords had ever heard of before.

    Indeed, Shakespeare’s words were most likely written not for the “sodden-witted Lords, but for the commoner. His primary paying audience was the common man in the “pit”, where for a full penny you could have standing room only views of the works portrayed on stage.

  18. Shapiro rhymes with hero; I guess the Stranglers didn’t think of any Shapiros as heroes. Same goes for Nero. I must conclude Shapiros and Neros are zeros, and Shakespearos are thus the real heroes by light-yearos.

    Great song, though. As a vintage keyboard buff, I dig the Stranglers a lot.

    Seriously, Shakespeare was an inventive genius, but he wasn’t divinely inspired, as someone once actually claimed to me. He didn’t write in a vacuum. There were so many nonstandard varieties of English at the time; I’ve read that speech even varied from neighborhood to neighborhood in greater London. Bill Bryson’s the Mother Tongue is a wonderful survey of the history and varieties of English.

  19. Walt said: The wealth of the English language is due, in part, to the presence of the complete works of Shakespeare and the King James bible in every town and school in the English-speaking world. These two works are our common touchstone and the world would be very different without them.

    Well, the first sentence is hard to argue with, but I don’t think that it’s still possible to call Shakespeare and the KJB “our” common touchstone. Our society is really pluralistic these days, and there’s a truly shocking number of people in the English-speaking world who have never read Shakespeare or the Bible. I think that’s fucking crazy, but to find “our common touchstone” today, you have to appeal to a much lower common denomenator. An old professor of mine once summarized a study that showed that, indeed, there was at least one English work that a substantial majority of Americans (at least) had read: The Cat in the Hat. Yeah, culture!

  20. Kwix, Indeed, Shakespeare’s words were most likely written not for the “sodden-witted Lords, but for the commoner. His primary paying audience was the common man in the “pit”, where for a full penny you could have standing room only views of the works portrayed on stage.

    Or… he was writing for both audiences! This remarkable theory, for which I take sole credit, posits that he wrote the really pretty, elegant, “angels sing thee to thy rest” stuff for the lords, and the raunchy potty humor for the drunken masses.

    I am the first to have thought of this, right?

    (Sorry for the sarcasm. I’m tired and cranky.)

  21. “The Cat in the Hat”? Yeah, that kinda rings a bell…it’s right up there with “Hop on Pop”, “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish”, and “Horton Hears a Who”. Nice pictures, too.

    πŸ˜‰

  22. “Fox in Sox” is far superior to the drivel penned in “The Cat in the Hat”

    😐

  23. What ever happened to Leon Trotsky?

  24. joe,

    He was killed in his study, by Mr. Mercader, with the ice axe.

  25. You sure it wasn’t by Col. Mustard, in the Conservatory, with the candlestick?

  26. No, that was Judge Crater.

  27. “The Cat in the Hat”? Yeah, that kinda rings a bell…it’s right up there with “Hop on Pop”, “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish”, and “Horton Hears a Who”. Nice pictures, too.

    Green Eggs and Ham. The very best of Beginner Books by the esteemed doctor. Fifty different words in the book. Just 50. Way cool.

  28. Or Green Eggs and Hamlet.

  29. To fry or not to fry: that is the question.
    Whether tis nobler at the stove to spatter
    The butter and yolks of an enslaved chicken,
    or to poach in water…

    I give up.

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