On April 23, we will celebrate the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare, who was, quite simply, the most prolific word-maker who ever trod the earthly stage. Of the 20,138 basewords that Shakespeare employs in his plays, sonnets, and other poems, his is the first known use of over 1,700 of them. The most verbally innovative of our authors, Shakespeare made up more than 8.5 percent of his written vocabulary. Reading his works is like witnessing the birth of modern English.
Among his verbal inventions are: auspicious, bedroom, bump, dishearten, dwindle, hurry, lapse, lonely, majestic, road, sneak and useless. So great is his influence on his native tongue that we find it hard to imagine a time when these words did not exist.
Oscar Wilde once quipped, “Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations.” Unrivaled in so many other ways in matters verbal, Shakespeare is unequaled as a phrasemaker.
“All for one, one for all,” and “not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse,” respectively wrote Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers and Clement Clark Moore in The Night Before Christmas. But Shakespeare said them first — “One for all, or all for one we gage” in The Rape of Lucrece and “not a mouse stirring” in Hamlet.
A student who attended a performance of Hamlet came away complaining that the play “was nothing more than a bunch of cliches.” The reason for this common reaction is that so many of the memorable expressions in Hamlet have become proverbial. In that one play alone were born: " brevity is the soul of wit, there's the rub, to thine own self be true, it smells to heaven, the very witching time of night, the primrose path, though this be madness, yet there is method in it, dog will have his day, the apparel oft proclaims the man, neither a borrower nor a lender be, frailty, thy name is woman, something is rotten in the state of Denmark, more honored in the breach than the observance, hoist with his own petard, the lady doth protest too much, to be or not to be, sweets for the sweet, the be-all and end-all, to the manner born, and more in sorrow than in anger."
Cudgel your brain, and you can append a sample of everyday, idiomatic phrases from other Shakespearean plays: If you knit your brow and wish that this disquisition would vanish into thin air because it is Greek to you, you are quoting William Shakespeare in all his infinite variety. If you point the finger at strange bedfellows and blinking idiots, you are converting Shakespeare’s coinages into currency. If you have seen better days in your salad days, when you wore your heart on your sleeve, you are, whether you know it or not, going from Bard to verse.
If you break the ice with one fell swoop, if you never stand on ceremonies, if you play it fast and loose until the crack of doom, if you paint the lily, if you hope for a plague on both houses, if you are more sinned against than sinning because you have been eaten out of house and home by your own flesh and blood (the most unkindest cut of all), if you haven't slept a wink and are breathing your last because you're in a pickle, if you carry within you the milk of human kindness and a heart of gold (even though you know that all that glisters is not gold), if you laugh yourself into stitches at too much of a good thing, if you make a virtue of necessity, if you know that the course of true love never did run smooth, and if you won't budge an inch — why, if the truth be told and the truth will out, what the dickens, in a word, right on!, be that as it may, the game is up — you are, as luck would have it, standing on that tower of strength of phrasemakers, William Shakespeare.
The etymologist Ernest Weekley said of 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, our English tongue would be immeasurably the poorer. No day goes by that we do not speak and hear and read and write his legacy.
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The article above was written by Richard Lederer and published in the April 2014 edition of the Mensa Bulletin. It is reprinted here with his permission. Richard Lederer is the author of over 30 books on Language and related topics, writes a syndicated weekly column, and is a popular speaker at organization meetings, conferences and schools. His website is www.verbivore.com, and you can purchase his books there via PayPal.