Word Nerd: 11 essential words we have Shakespeare to thank for

12 Jun

Why was Shakespeare one of the best writers in English? He had the best stories, characters and words. How? Stories he improvised, characters he invented, and words he borrowed.

Now, before belligerent bardolaters barge in, we’d like to say that yes, the Bard’s genius was just that – genius. And far be it from us to dismiss it or explain it away.  Shakespeare was Shakespeare, and there are a 1000 reasons which make him the literary legend that he is.

But, one of the important ways in which Shakespeare enriched language was by inventing words. According to one source, the number is close to 1700. Of course, people argue that the words written by the Bard were probably in oral circulation earlier. However, he still deserves credit the first to write them, and down record them for posterity.

And so, we bring you a list of 11 words we use every day that are the Bard’s legacy.

1. Addiction: Othello

If not for the Bard & his penchant for coming up with new words, how would we define the way we feel about chocolate, TV series, and boybands?

2. Amazement: Pericles

Although the suffix ‘-ment’ has been replaced by ‘-balls’ in teenage jargon, the word remains important. To be fair, it originated in Middle English, but Shakespeare was the first to use it in this form.

3. Dauntless: Henry VI – Part 3

To daunt comes from the Middle English ‘to tame’. Henry VI advises Queen Margaret to not be tamed by misfortune, but to be dauntless and triumph over adversity. Words to live by, yes?

4. Eyeball: The Tempest

One of the techniques which Shakespeare perfected was using nouns as verbs. This is what gives the word’s modern usage its flavour, “Did you see the way she eyeballed his watch?”

5. Ladybird: Romeo & Juliet

While we aren’t overtly fond of the insect kingdom, we do love ladybirds. Something about them reminds us of summer picnics and happy times. There is an interesting explanation for the origin of that word which you can find here.

6. Leapfrog: Henry V

Not sure if the you have ever played leapfrog – it requires vaulting with parted legs over people who are bending down. (If it’s any fun, let us know) Again, a noun which is mostly used as a verb in the modern age. Everything leapfrogs these days – technology, relationships, and obviously, business executives.

7. Mortifying: Much Ado About Nothing

The word has Late Middle English roots, which mean repression. Shakespeare used this word both in Much Ado About Nothing & The Merchant of Venice. In the latter play, one of the characters says he would rather die of passion than of repression.

Today, of course, the word is commonly used to indicate extreme embarrassment. (That’s why it’s our favourite!)

8. Ode: Love’s Labour Lost

This word traveled from Greek to Latin to French before it was embraced by English, thanks to Shakespeare. The meaning of the word has remained the same – a lyric poem meant to praise.

9. Silliness: Othello

You would be surprised to know that, in Old English, to be silly meant to be happy or innocent. We guess the same school of thought inspired the adage, “Ignorance is bliss.” In Middle English, the word came to mean pitiable & weak. By Shakespeare’s time, it meant the same as it does today. Hence, Roderigo’s lament, “It is silliness to live, when to live is torment..”

10. Vulnerable: Macbeth

Shakespeare adopted the word from Latin. Again, the meaning has stayed constant, though the context has evolved ever so much. We doubt that in the 16th century, being vulnerable was applauded as a way to connect with the world. But they didn’t have our new-age mumbo-jumbo then.

11. Zany: Love’s Labour Lost

Don’t you love the word? We do.

It also has the most interesting of etymologies, so stay with us. Italian clowns, when they played servants, were commonly called Giovanni. The name travelled to France and became zani, which was then adopted into English as zany.
It’s not an insult though. The word means something unconventional, out-of the-ordinary, eccentric. All good things to be.

Are there any important words we’ve missed? Or interesting word origin stories that you would like to share? Email us or leave a comment below.
Read other Word Nerd articles here.

Word Nerd: Are Rules Only for Fools?
Word Nerd: 5 made-up words that are now part of the English language
Word Nerd: A Good Vocabulary Makes You Smarter

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