…And At Least Two Words You Probably Should Know Were NOT Invented By Shakespeare

There’s a Huffington Post piece making the rounds today titled 13 Words You Probably Didn’t Know Were Invented By Shakespeare. While well meaning, the post is in desperate need of pedantic correction by a medievalist, and I’ve volunteered myself for this crucial task. Here’s the lead-in to the post:

Shakespeare’s word invention can be credited to the fact that the English language as a whole was in a major state of flux during the time that he was writing. Colonization and wars meant that English speakers were borrowing more and more words from other languages. So before you dismiss Shakespeare as a stodgy, boring alternative to more contemporary writers, remember that you have him to thank for the following words…

English speakers and writers had for centuries been borrowing words from other languages, of course; English is a hybrid of French, German, and Latin forms and idioms, and by the early sixteenth century, decades before Shakespeare, it had absorbed innumerable forms from other insular vernaculars as well (Scots, Cornish, etc.). More narrowly, though, the post as a whole is a test case in why NOT to trust etymological and lexical information in standard encyclopedias when making historical claims (yes, that includes the Oxford English Dictionary, on which many such etymologies are based). Here are just two examples of the Huffington Post‘s erroneous attributions of first usages to the Bard:

Definition: Sad from being apart from other people
Origin: ”Alone” was first shortened to “lone” in the 1400s.
Quote: ”Believe’t not lightly – though I go alone / Like to a lonely dragon that his fen   -Coriolanus

Wrong. In a manuscript of La Belle Dame sans Merci englisht by Sir Richard Ros (from the French of Alain Chartier, ca. 1420) a scribe has substituted “lonely” for Ros’s “lovely” in describing ”straungers, to schew heme lonely chere.” And in The Abbey of the Holy Ghost (ca. 1350), the narrator defines prayer as a “lonely” sacrifice to God: “Orysone es a lonely sacrafice to God, Solase and lykynge to Angeƚƚs, and turment to þe fende.”

Another example:

Definition: A quality of brightness and happiness that can be seen on a person’s face
Origin: Derived from the Latin “radiantem,” meaning “beaming.”
Quote: ”For by the sacred radiance of the sun” - King Lear

Wrong again. The two times Shakespeare uses the word radiance occur in All’s Well That Ends Well (ca. 1604) and King Lear (ca. 1603); it also appears in the dubiously attributed Lover’s Complaint (pub. 1609). Yet the word was used years earlier by Thomas Nashe, in his dedicatory epistle to The Choise of Valentines, Or, The Merie Ballade of Nashe His Dildo, a pornographic satire written early in the 1590s and circulated only in manuscript. Here is the passage in question, addressed to Mistress Elizabeth Carey: “A worthie daughter are you of so worthie a mother; borrowing (as another Phoebe) from her bright Sunne-like resplendaunce, the orient beames of your radiaunce.”

I’m sure there are other first usages falsely attributed to Shakespeare; these took me five minutes to correct using standard sources like the Middle English Compendium and a few on-line concordances. So–when someone tells you that Shakespeare invented “around 1700″ words, be dubious, my friends. Be very dubious.

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2 comments on “…And At Least Two Words You Probably Should Know Were NOT Invented By Shakespeare

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