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Coined by Shakespeare

As every schoolboy knows, the towering presence in the formative period of English literature is William Shakespeare. Not only a genius with words, he lived at a cusp in the development of English vocabulary which meant he could draw on great reserves of different speech patterns. The rise of the popular press meant that his plays were preserved after his death and made available to later generations (much to the disgust of those schoolboys, and girls, who now find his language difficult and obscure).

The cover of Coined by Shakespeare

One aspect of Shakespeare’s inventive abilities that makes him such a force in the development of English was his ability to create phrases that stick in the memory and which have become an integral and enduring part of the language. There are dozens in common use which can be traced back to his plays: not budge an inch, green-eyed jealousy, to play fast and loose, to be tongue-tied, to be a tower of strength, to knit your brows, make a virtue of necessity, insist on fair play, stand on ceremony, too much of a good thing, seen better days, living in a fool’s paradise.

Virtually none of those phrases appears in Coined by Shakespeare, which concentrates instead on the individual words known to have been used first by him. The authors — Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless — suggest the most probable number is 1,500, though estimates have gone so high as 10,000. The authors discuss 209 of them, the entries ranging from abstemious to zany, with way-stations at (to pick a few alphabetically at random) alligator, bedroom, farmhouse, jaded, label, marketable, obscene, sanctimonious, and tranquil.

In their introduction, the authors comment that:

Shakespeare’s words are current in business (employer and manager; investment and retirement), as well as in law (circumstantial evidence and foregone conclusion) and politics (especially among those who negotiate or petition). The advertising world looks for new designs and exposure. Reporters profess familiarity with the word reword, if not with misquote, and activists actively use the Bard’s best in phrases from “civil rights protesters” to “human rights violations”.

Each entry consists of a paragraph of some 200-300 words, listing the plays and the context in which the word first appears, where it comes from, and how it has evolved since. At the end of each alphabetical section there is a short quiz on subjects like the first lines of plays or curiosities about the life of Shakespeare (and yes, the notorious second-best bed of Shakespeare’s will makes an appearance in one of those). The prose is straightforward, even rather flat. You won’t buy it for fine writing, but for useful information.

[Jeffrey McQuain & Stanley Malless, Coined by Shakespeare: Words and Meanings First Used by the Bard, Merriam-Webster Inc, USA (1998). ISBN 0-87779-353-0. Priced at $14.95.]

Page created 25 Jul. 1998

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