On this site, we will record the results of our research as we attempt to accurately catalogue all of the words that could be considered “new” when Shakespeare employed them in one of his plays or poems.
We must be careful to define what is meant by "new". We categorize Shakespeare's "new" words as follows:
(1) Class I Words: Words whose literal first appearance in printed English occurred in the works of Shakespeare.
(2) Class II Words: Words which previously existed in one part of speech, but which Shakespeare was the first to use in a different part of speech (for example, to take a word that had previously existed as a noun, and Shakespeare was the first to use it as a verb or adjective); and
(3) Class III Words: Words which had been previously in use, and which Shakespeare was the first to give a new meaning to, while using it in the same part of speech.
There are two caveats:
A. After much agonizing, I have decided to not count compound words - which include such goodies as coldblooded and upstairs - as technically "new" words; the number of compound words the Elizabethan dramatists invented is staggering, and would overwhelm our list of genuinely new words. However, the topic of compound words will be addressed separately.
B. The list of new words will include, however, words which previously existed, but had a completely independent meaning from the one used by Shakespeare; for example, Shakespeare was the first to use the word alligator (OED entry noun 2) to refer to the reptile, even though alligator had been used previously to refer to a person who binds or ties something (OED entry noun 1).
Phase I of this Project: to determine with reasonable accuracy the number of Class I words - words which Shakespeare was literally the first to use.
Our project began in December 2018; we will be working through the alphabet one letter at a time. Our goal is to complete Phase I by the end of 2019. - We have completed work on the letter C, and are now well into the letter D.
Please note that we will count compound-words completely separately from "stand-alone" words. Our focus initially will be on "stand-alone" invented words. When we say "words" onthis site, we mean "stand-alone" words.
(1) Based on an extrapolation of our work on the first four letters of the alphabet, the number of words which we will with a high degree of confidence be able to assign to Shakespeare will be in the neighbourhood of 600.
The word list will be a disappointment to those who like to credit Shakespeare with a wide variety of "new" words that remain in common modern use. The reality is, the bard's contribution to the English language is much more significant when it comes to phrases and expressions, rather than to "words". But here too, we will find that much that has been attributed to Shakespeare appeared in the written record prior to Shakespeare.
(2) On the other, much ignored are the numerous collocations that Shakespeare created that have become an important part of our language; a collocation is what we might refer to as a natural pairing of or combination of words that don't necessarily qualify as an "expression"; for example, Shakespeare was the first to describe a departure as being abrupt, or an appointment as being missed.
DID SHAKESPEARE REALLY INVENT WORDS?
Yes and no; on the one hand - and contrary to public belief - Shakespeare did not “invent” words in the sense that he, for example, decided he needed a word that means “cow”, but with four syllables, and so out of his imagination came up with the word “grabofillbert”. Rather, he adapted old words by fitting them with prefixes and suffixes, or by combining them, to give them a new sense. In this fashion, Shakespeare did invent numerous words.
Shakespeare also can be credited with giving the English language new words by (a) adopting foreign words into written English, and (b) creating nonsense words and malapropisms.
Why did Shakespeare invent words? Because (1) he needed a word; (2) he would have been in a hurry to complete any play he was working on, due to the publics great demand for new material, and (3) he did not have a dictionary or thesaurus to help. Indeed, the first dictionaries had not yet been written in the early 17th century.
We do use the word “invented” on this site, for two reasons: (1) it is a handy short-hand way to get the attention of internet researchers, and (2) to be gently ironic.