Although it can be difficult to attribute the origination of a precise word to a specific person, the Oxford English Dictionary credits William Shakespeare with the first-use citations of approximately 1,600 words—from “bedazzle” to “fashionable” to “watchdog”—more than by any other writer. The master of wordplay also contributed dozens of other phrases that remain a part of our everyday language. In some cases, Shakespeare may have coined the terms; in others he may have been the first to put them into the written record.
According to Stephen Marche, author of “How Shakespeare Changed Everything,” the playwright utilized various linguistic techniques to create new words. He anglicized foreign words, such as creating “bandit” from the Italian “banditto”; fused prefixes and suffixes onto preexisting words to craft new words and converted nouns to verbs, such as “to elbow” someone out of the way.
“Shakespeare had language and very little else to create effects,” Marche says. “He was the special-effects master of language. That’s why the language is so dense and intense.” The reason why so many of the bard’s words and phrases continue to resonate hundreds of years after his death remains one of literature’s great mysteries, according to Marche. “Is it just because Shakespeare was imposed on audiences for so long? Or is it something in the words themselves? It’s impossible to know.”
Among the hundreds of Shakespeare’s enrichments to the popular lexicon are the following 10 words and phrases:
1. Green-eyed monster
In “Othello,” the arch-villain (another word credited to Shakespeare) Iago warns the title character: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on.” Shakespeare had earlier referred to “green-eyed jealousy” in “The Merchant of Venice,” perhaps employing the color because seventeenth-century writers equated a green complexion with illness.
In “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” the lovesick Berowne laments his past judgmental behavior and refers to himself as “a critic, nay, a night-watch constable.” By anglicizing a Greek word that means “to judge or decide,” Shakespeare unwittingly gave birth to a word used to describe centuries of reviewers who praised and condemned actors and actresses reciting his works.
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3. Wild goose chase
The first recorded citation of the phrase appears in “Romeo and Juliet” when Mercutio refers to a quick-fire exchange of jokes with his friend Romeo, “If thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.” While today the phrase means a “hopeless quest” by evoking the futility of chasing a wild goose, in Shakespeare’s time it referred to a horse race in which the trailing riders followed a leader weaving along an unmarked course in a formation mimicking wild geese.
Shakespeare equated levels of excitement with blood temperature several times in his writings. In “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Falstaff exclaims, “The Windsor bell hath struck twelve; the minute draws on. Now, the hot-blooded gods assist me!” In “King Lear,” the title character refers to “hot-blooded France.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, the widow Constance in “King John” berates the emotionless Limoges as a “cold-blooded slave.”
5. Skim milk
In “Henry IV,” Shakespeare uses the skimming of cream from milk to describe someone of weak character. When Hotspur condemns a nobleman for failing to support his rebellion against the king, he proclaims, “I could divide myself and go to buffets, for moving such a dish of skim-milk with so honorable an action!”
6. Be-all and end-all
When the title character in “Macbeth” ponders the assassination (another word credited to Shakespeare) of Scotland’s King Duncan, he contemplates the consequences both in his earthly bounds and in the afterlife: “That but this blow might be the be-all and the end-all—here, but here, upon this bank and shoal of time, we’d jump the life to come.”
Shakespeare employed “zany” as a noun rather than as an adjective after anglicizing the Italian word “zanni,” which referred to characters in sixteenth-century Italian comedies who mimicked the antics of clowns and other performers. In “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” Berowne blames the discovery of one of his tricks on “some slight zany.”
Shakespeare commonly created words such as “eyeball” by marrying together two existing words. In “The Tempest” Prospero instructs the spirit Ariel: “Go make thyself like a nymph o’ the sea: be subject to no sight but thine and mine; invisible to every eyeball else.” Shakespeare also used the plural “eyeballs” several times, including in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when Oberon instructs Puck to sprinkle the juice of a flower in Lysander’s eyes that will “make his eyeballs roll with wonted sight.”
9. Night owl
When Shakespeare wrote “for night-owls shriek where mounting larks should sing” in “Richard II,” he was referring to the nocturnal birds. When he employed the term in the narrative poem “The Rape of Lucrece,” however, he used it in a figurative sense to describe people partial to nightlife: “This said, his guilty hand pluck’d up the latch, and with his knee the door he opens wide. The dove sleeps fast that this night-owl will catch: thus treason works ere traitors be espied.”
Marche says that Shakespeare’s most remarkable addition to the English language may be the girl’s name “Jessica,” a possible anglicization of a biblical name employed by the playwright for the daughter of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice.” “Nobody names their daughter ‘Jessica’ because they think Shakespeare invented it. They just do it because it’s a great name,” Marche says.