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Shakespeare's Vocabulary

Shakespeare wrote during a period (Early Modern English) when the English-language vocabulary expanded substantially.

The development of the printing press and the growth in literacy resulted in more works to read and more readers to read them. There were no English grammars (textbooks) or dictionaries restricting which words were acceptable, what they meant, how they could be used or even how they should be spelled. Works by classical authors in Latin and Greek as well as contemporary works written in Latin, the international language of scholars, became more widely available and words from these were assimilated into English. Translations stimulated the incorporation of foreign words into English and the invention of new words to meet the needs of translation. Increased travel -- as part of an education experience, for commercial purposes, and the exploration of foreign lands -- brought people into contact with other languages from which words were borrowed (especially from French, Spanish and Italian).

New words were coined, old words were given new meanings and words were "borrowed" from other languages.

portrait of Shakespeare

It was once believed that Shakespeare's vocabulary (based on his written works) was quite large -- 30,000 words or more.

There are several problems in calculating the size of his vocabulary. First, you must determine which works Shakespeare wrote. Then you must make a number of decisions about what constitutes a word. Should the names of people and places and foreign words be counted? Do all the negative forms (unhand) count? What about variant spellings (burthen, burden)? Should you count phrases (grow up) and compound words (blood-stained) as single meaningful units ("words") or just the individual words? Should each meaning of a word count as a separate word (the verb and noun call has many definitions)? And should all the inflected forms be counted as individual words or just the root word; that is, do you count only run or also runs, running and ran?

Recent analyses have concluded that Shakespeare's vocabulary ranged between 17,000 and 20,000 words. This is small by modern standards but large for the time. 1

Hugh Craig compared Shakespeare's plays to the those of other contemporary writers and concluded that Shakespeare's vocabulary is larger only because the number of surviving plays written by him is larger. On a play-by-play basis it is not much different from his contemporaries.2 An analysis by Ward E. Y. Elliott and Robert J. Valenza also found that Shakespeare's vocabulary is larger because he wrote more than most and was better recorded, catalogued and anthologized.3

Shakespeare is credited with introducing more words into the English language than any other writer. The Oxford English Dictionary lists about 2,200 words for which the earliest citation is in a work of Shakespeare. (The number is decreasing as earlier citations by other writers are found.) This does not necessarily mean that Shakespeare invented the words, but that his is the first recorded use of them. A word might have been used in speech long before it was written down. Or it might have been recorded earlier in a document (a letter, diary, book, pamphlet, or newspaper) that hasn't been examined yet or hasn't survived to the present day.

David Crystal says that of the "words in the OED whose first recorded use is in Shakespeare, about 1,700 are plausible Shakespearean inventions -- words like anthropophaginian, assassination, disproperty, incardinate, insultment, irregulous, outswear, and uncurse. About half of them stayed in the language. That is a remarkable total. No other writer of the time -- or indeed since -- comes anywhere near it. Even more remarkable is the fact that 1,700 is approaching 10 per cent of his known vocabulary."4

In addition to the size of Shakespeare's vocabulary Hugh Craig also tried to determine the number of words "invented" by Shakespeare. He found that on a play-by-play basis Shakespeare introduced new words at about the same rate as his contemporaries. There are more Shakespeare neologisms for the same reason that his vocabulary is larger: there are more of his works to analyze: "the evidence of vocabulary size and word-use frequency places Shakespeare with his contemporaries, rather than apart from them."5

Shakespeare coined new words using several methods. He added prefixes and suffixes as with useful and useless. He was fond of using the "un" prefix to create new words such as unveil, unhand and uncurl. He also combined existing words to make new words, such as blood-stained, barefaced, schoolboy and slugabeg. Occasionally, he simply made up words, such as kickie-wickie (kicky-wicky), a jocular term for a wife in All's Well That Ends Well. Sometimes he would use a word in a new part-of-speech category; for example, he uses the noun antic as a verb (antick'd in Antony and Cleopatra).6 Some of Shakespeare neologisms -- bump (a swelling), dislocate (a joint), frugal, horrid and puke (as a verb) -- are still used and some are not -- questrist (one who goes in quest of another) and exsufflicate (inflated, windy).

1912 Sears and Roebuck ad for Shakespeare's Works

Shakespeare had a large vocabulary, although it probably wasn't any larger those of other writers of the time. Shakespeare introduced more words into the English language because he wrote more. Shakespeare had a greater influence on English vocabulary than his contemporaries because he wrote more works which were frequently reprinted, read and performed. However, it's not the number of words Shakespeare knew or used or invented but how he used them that make him a great artist.

Shakespeare List

Cotton word games provide nine word lists of various sizes: Middle English, Shakespeare, Shakespeare with contractions, General, General with contractions, American, American with contractions, British, British with contractions.

Noun and verb forms of the word barricado appear in Shakespeare's works several times. The synonym barricade which entered the language during his lifetime does not appear at all, nor does barrier an older word.

Although he had a relatively large vocabulary of base words not all word forms appear in his works. You will find barricado and barricadoes but not barricadoed nor barricadoing. Only the words that actually appear in his works are in the Shakespeare list. Abandon and bagpipe are included but not abandons or bagpipes. You need to know Shakespeare well when playing with the Shakespeare list.

Will's Barricadoes

You use the letters in your tray to form horizontal and vertical words crossword-fashion on the board.

After each move barriers are placed on the board which reduces the number of open squares.

game boardgame board

When Barricade Mode is Random (above left), barriers are placed in 7 randomly-chosen, empty squares. When Barricade Mode is Sequential (above right), the empty squares of one row or column are filled with barriers starting at the top left and spiraling inward clockwise.

The score for a valid word is the sum of (1) the letter-points of the primary word and all new cross-words and (2) any bonus points.

When you use all seven tiles in your tray to form a word (sometimes called a bingo), the total points for the play are doubled.

The player with the highest score at the end of a game is the winner.

See also

Quick Intro to Will's Barricadoes

The Shakespeare Word List

Shakespeare's Punning in "A Modest Defense of the Pun"

Drudges Two and Dictionaries


1The longest word in Shakespeare's vocabulary is honorificabilitudinitatibus (Love's Labor's Lost, V, i, 41).

2Hugh Craig, "Shakespeare’s Vocabulary: Myth and Reality," Shakespeare Quarterly, 62, 1 (Spring 2011), 53-74. Shakespeare's apparent large vocabulary has been used as "proof" that he couldn't have written all the works attributed to him: since he did not attend university he couldn't have known all the words he used. Craig has shown that there was no correlation between formal education and the size of vocabulary; contemporaries, such as Ben Jonson, also were not university-trained and had vocabularies just as large.

3Ward E. Y. Elliott and Robert J. Valenza, “Shakespeare’s Vocabulary: Did It Dwarf all Others?” in Stylistics and Shakespeare's Language: Transdisciplinary Approaches, Mireille Ravassat and Jonathan Culpeper, eds., (London: Continuum Press, 2011).

4David Crystal, Think on My Words: Exploring Shakespeare's Language (Cambridge University Press, 2008), 9. Crystal says that Shakespeare is the only recorded user of 309 words (in one or more senses) in the OED. (http://www.thinkonmywords.com/).

5Craig, "Shakespeare’s Vocabulary: Myth and Reality." In "John Milton -- our greatest word-maker," The Guardian, Sunday 27 January 2008, John Crace writes that "[a]ccording to Gavin Alexander, lecturer in English at Cambridge university and fellow of Milton's alma mater, Christ's College, who has trawled the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for evidence, Milton is responsible for introducing some 630 words to the English language, making him the country's greatest neologist, ahead of Ben Jonson with 558, John Donne with 342 and Shakespeare with 229" (http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2008/jan/28/britishidentity.johncrace). We can find no other source for Alexander's numbers.

6"Verbing" nouns is often done for humorous purposes. In Thomas Hood's "Mrs. Gardiner: A Horticultural Romance" in The Comic Annual (London: Henry Colburn., 1846), 229, Mrs. Gardiner is so obsessed with gardening that it affects her manner of speech: "Miss Sharp crocussed before me, -- but I snowdropped sooner than anyone in the Row."

Bill Watterson's precocious and energetic cartoon character CalvinCalvin discusses "verbing" with his stuffed tiger HobbesHobbes (Calvin and Hobbes, 25 Jan 1993):

Calvin: I like to verb words.

Hobbes: What?

Calvin: I take nouns and adjectives and use them as verbs. Remember when "access" was a thing? Now it's something you do. It got verbed.

Calvin: Verbing weirds language.

Hobbes: Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.