In four days will arrive the 450th anniversary of the birth of the greatest playwright, poet and wordmaker who ever trod the earthly stage.
Little information about William Shakespeare’s personal life is available, but from municipal records we can deduce that he was born in the English village of Stratford-upon-Avon on April 23, 1564, and that after retiring to his hometown around 1611, he died there on April 23, 1616. Shakespeare’s plays, which he wrote in London between approximately 1590 and 1613, have been in almost-constant production since their creation. Time has proven the truth of what Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, said of him: “He was not of an age, but for all time.”
An often-neglected aspect of William Shakespeare’s genius is that his words, as well as his works, were not just of an age, but for all time. He was, quite simply, the greatest word-maker who ever lived.
Of the 20,138 basewords that inhabit Shakespeare plays, sonnets and other poems, his is the first known use of more than 1,700 of them. The most verbally innovative of our authors and our all-time champion neologizer, Shakespeare made up more than 8.5 percent of his written vocabulary! Reading his works is like witnessing the birth of modern English.
Consider the following list of 50 representative words that, as far as we can tell, Shakespeare was the first to use in writing. So great is his influence on his native tongue that we find it hard to imagine a time when these words did not exist:
accommodation aerial amazement apostrophe assassination auspicious baseless bedroom bump castigate
clangor countless courtship critic dexterously dishearten dislocate dwindle eventful exposure
fitful frugal generous gloomy gnarled hurry impartial indistinguishable invulnerable lapse
laughable lonely majestic misplaced monumental multitudinous obscene pedant perusal pious
premeditated radiance reliance road sanctimonious seamy sneak sportive submerge useless
The etymologist Ernest Weekley said of William Shakespeare, “His contribution to our phraseology is ten times greater than that of any writer to any language in the history of the world.” The essayist and novelist Walter Pater exclaimed, “What a garden of words!”
In Sonnet CXVI the Bard himself wrote, “If this be error and upon me proved,/I never writ, nor no man ever loved.” If Shakespeare had not lived and written with such a loving ear for the music of our language, the English tongue would be immeasurably the poorer. No day goes by that we do not speak and hear and read and write his legacy.
Today at 2 p.m., Richard Lederer will be speaking and signing at Mysterious Galaxy Books in Clairemont (7051 Clairemont Mesa Blvd.) (858) 268-4747. On Monday at 6:30 p.m., he will be joining a troupe of actors from the San Diego Shakespeare Society at the Main Library (370 Park Blvd.). (619) 236-5800, and on Wednesday at 5 p.m., he will be joining a troupe at the Coronado Senior Center (1019 7th St.). (619) 435-2616.
Please send your questions and comments about language to firstname.lastname@example.org