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A Shakespearian Mystery



(Curtain rises as Narrator opens her laptop and starts typing.)


To pour a cup of tea, or not to pour a cup of tea, that is the question. Let’s pondereth on those words, while we museth on Shakespeare.


400 years have passed and we are still talking about him. At least, I did through ALL of high school. He wrote about love, death, life, murder, jealousy and everything in between. In all honesty, I never did realize how impactful he was until this musing. One thing my high school teacher did tell me about Shakespeare is that he’s a complete mystery.


For one, no one actually knows what he looked like. Sure, we’ve seen his portrait, but apparently, that was painted years after his death. Also, his wife’s name was Anne Hathaway.


(Narrator looks around the room suspiciously.)


Although it all sounds suspect to me, his writing is the biggest mystery of all. Not only did Shakespeare invent expressions, but he also invented words! 1700 to be exact (according to Google). What’s even more astounding is that people managed to understand him...or did they?


I know, it definitely seems strange that he created such a large, yet rounded number, of new words...and I’m not the only one.


(Narrator looks around the room even more suspiciously, raising his eyebrows one at a time.)


Apparently, the actual number of words Shakespeare created was greatly exaggerated!


(Audience gasps.)


The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), who is the prime authority regarding words, has indicated Shakespeare as the original author of many words. Essentially, when making their assessment, the OED’s suits did not consider that some of the bard's vocabulary was just everyday Elizabethan English. It should be noted that the OED started manually establishing the origins of words in the late 19th century. So, when computers made their debut, thousands of writing samples could have been analyzed, mix and matched at once, eliminating half of the previous manual conclusions.


This error, and subsequent correction, made everything make sense. Since Shakespeare did not invent so many words, it meant his audience could actually understand him and enjoy his plays. Around 2000 people were in attendance, for his more popular works, one would naturally assume they’d like to get their money’s worth.


(aside) Fun fact, the best seats in the theatre cost 1 to 3 pence, aka 1 to 3 loaves of bread at the time. That would be roughly 0.02 cents Canadian per loaf.


Although Shakespeare was probably the first to write down and record these "new" words, scholars have confirmed 422 words to be legitimately William's creations. He didn’t arbitrarily pick out a random mix of letters to form new words, but rather, he had a surprisingly logical method.


There are 3 main categories of Shakespearian English, also known as modern English:

  1. Adaptations were modifications of pre-existing words. This included adding prefixes, suffixes, and every other type of fix to jazz up a word. For example, ceremoniously. He would also combine words such as eye and drop to create eyedrop.

  2. Borrowing happened when Shakespeare appropriated words from other languages. Notably, they were mostly Latin-based. For instance, tranquil.

  3. Lastly, a conversation occurred when Willy made nouns into verbs and vice-versa. For example, in Hamlet Scene 1, Act 5, he used the word “friend” as “friending.”


So making up new words is fun. I mean, we do it all the time. For one, we use Google as a verb - Googling. Sure, it’s amusing, but why did he do it?


(Pause for effect and to create suspense.)


Well, to be honest, it made his (writing) life easier.


Shakespeare’s plays are all written in Iambic Pentameter. This means there are 10 syllables per line, which alternate between being stressed and unstressed syllables. As you can imagine, life would be much better when you can create new words while writing long scripts that must follow this difficult pre-determined pattern.


As it turns out, not everyone can make up words. Our friend Willy was socially allowed to do so as he was a part of the English literature movement of theatre and playwright. He had the duty to translate everyday life into a script. Also, his words were easy to remember, as most were just variations of pre-existing words. Like slang, it was catchy.


Although I spent all of my high school English classes learning about the bard, he is still an enigma to most and will stay that way indefinitely. If I had the opportunity to ask him one question, it would be how to convince my English professors that I can make up words too. Reaching the word count would become much easier.


(Curtain closes as Narrator shutters the laptop.)



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