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Incony questrists: Shakespeare’s ‘rare ornaments’ of the English language

Shakespeare was writing at a time when the English language was in an unusual state of flux. Many English books, and even plays (though not those intended for the popular theatre) were still written wholly in Latin, because this was the best way to achieve an international readership. Shakespeare himself uses many Latin tags (Latin stock phrases) and quotations, especially in his earlier plays, such as Titus Andronicus. In the sixteenth century, the English language was struggling to achieve a vocabulary and expressive power comparable to that offered by Latin. This process involved much coining of new words, often on the basis of, especially, Latin and French. It also encouraged the use of old words in new forms, senses, and combinations. Shakespeare was certainly an innovator, as his contemporaries were aware. Francis Meres, in his book Palladis Tamia, or Wit’s Treasury, published in 1598, praised him as one by whom ‘The English tongue is mightily enriched, and gorgeously invested in rare ornaments and resplendent habiliments.’

How large was Shakespeare’s vocabulary?

Shakespeare’s works contain around 900,000 words. It has been calculated that his active vocabulary as revealed by his works was made up of between 20,000 and 30,000 words – it is impossible to be precise both because of the difficulty of defining exactly what we mean by a word – do compounds, negative forms, names, and deliberate mistakes count, for instance? – and because of variants between the texts. Some scholars would put the total lower than this – Professor David Crystal (in an essay in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works) estimates it at between 17,000 and 20,000, which he says ‘is quite small by modern standards, though probably much larger than his contemporaries.’ And the same scholar estimates that ‘the number of his lexical innovations, insofar as these can be identified reliably, are [sic] probably no more than 1,700, less than half of which have remained in the language.’ This is not enormous; on the other hand Crystal says that ‘no other author matches these impressive figures.’

All the world’s a stage…

If you read some of the writings of contemporary authors, especially Thomas Nashe, you would be confronted with a vocabulary that seems to us far more esoteric than Shakespeare’s – but this may be simply because Shakespeare’s writings have become so more familiar over the centuries. Some words that he apparently coined are still in use. So of course are many phrases, some of which have become proverbial – we can all probably think of such obvious examples as ‘more sinned against than sinning’, ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished’, ‘all the world’s a stage’, and so on. But many of his coinages too are no longer current – examples are comart, cursorary, empiricutic, exsufflicate, incony, questrist, and villagery, all unknown to my spellchecker, although all of them appear in that comprehensive record of the English language past and present, the OED.

Shakespeare was especially fond of coining negative forms beginning with un-, such as unprofited, untender, untitled, and untutored, some of which are still used today. Of course what he did with the words he invented, or imported from other languages, is far more important than their newness; but certainly his fecund mind enriched our language in incalculable ways.

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