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Shakespeare created plays and poems — but also many words

"Things you think you're saying for the first time ever, have been said better before by Shakespeare, though they may need saying again." Ken Kesey, Paris Review, 1993

Everyone knows that William Shakespeare is considered the greatest writer in the English language. His 38 plays and more than 150 poems have inspired and influenced countless other writers (not to mention actors, composers, painters and artists of every kind).

But Shakespeare also influenced the language all of us speak every day. He was an enormously inventive creator of words themselves. Thousands of words he used in his plays had never appeared in print before, and scholars credit him with inventing many of them. Most of them are still part of the English language more than four centuries later.

Estimates vary, but he brought into the English language somewhere between 1,700 and 2,200 words. They range from "accommodation" to "vaulting," from "frugal" to "obscene" — and, fittingly for a playwright, he's credited with inventing the word "critic."

Dozens of commonly used phrases also come from Shakespeare's works. Cold comfort, crack of doom, milk of human kindness, star-crossed lovers — all from the Bard's pen. When we say "What's done is done" or "Truth will out," we're quoting from Macbeth or The Merchant of Venice.

And sometimes we quote Shakespeare without being aware of the words' original meaning. "To thine own self be true," uttered so often with sanctimonious sincerity, is spoken in Hamlet by Polonius, who is such an old phony he wouldn't know his own self if it bit him.

Colette Bancroft, Times book editor

Shakespeare created plays and poems — but also many words 01/02/13 [Last modified: Monday, December 31, 2012 2:24pm]
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