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The Scrivener: A Midsummer Night's Wordmaster

Brian Barratt points out that many words appeared in print for the first time in William Shakespeare’s plays.

“It isn't always possible to say whether he invented or coined a new word, or was quick to use it after it came into English,’’ says Brian.

This is the fifth and concluding article in a series about Shakespeare’s magical play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’’. To read the other four, along with many other entertaining words written by Brian, please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

And do visit his stimulating Web site The Brain Rummager

William Shakespeare's vocabulary might have been around 20,000 or 30,000 words, depending on how individual words and their derivatives are classified. Many words appear in print for the first time in his plays. It isn't always possible to say whether he invented or coined a new word, or was quick to use it after it came into English.

The following six words first appeared in print in 1590, used once only in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", indicating that they were probably coined by Shakespeare. The figures indicate the act, scene and line numbers. Line numbers might vary in different editions of the play.

2,1,100 undistinguishable He also used indistinguishable which came into more common use. "Distinguish" was borrowed from French in about 1560.

2,2,58 interchained This didn't survive until the present day but interlock, which came into English in the early 1630s, via another writer, is still with us.

3,1.69 home-spuns Meaning home-made cloths and garments. It appears in other books from around the same date but Shakespeare might have coined it.

3,2,153 superpraise An invented word that did not have a very long history in our language.

3,2,301 shrewishness Shakespeare also used shrewish in "A Comedy of Errors".

4,1,43 barky in "the barky fingers of the elm". A picturesque adjective that is still in our dictionaries.

Here are four words he used only once in all his plays — in a poetic speech in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" — even though they had been in English for centuries prior to his time.

2,1,36 quern from Old English cweorn, a circular stone for grinding corn.

2,1,37 churn from Old Englisn cyrin, a vessel for making butter from cream, evolved into chirne by about 1350. Churn became the standard spelling in the 1500s.

2,1,38 barm From Old English beorma, the froth from the top of fermenting malt liquors, used as yeast in bread-making.

Shakespeare coined the following three words, in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", within about 50 years of the first appearance in English of the words upon which he based them.

2,2,128 insufficiency He also used it in Sonnet no. 150.

3,2,121 preposterously Preposterous was already in use.

3,2,286 bashfulness Bashful was already in use.

There are other words which have interesting stories behind them.

Cobweb comes from coppewebbe, used from the 1300s. Coppe is from an Old English word for spider. "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is the only play in which Shakespeare used the word cobweb, applying it as a name for one of the fairy characters.

Mustardseed the name of another fairy has a similar background to Cobweb.

gawds appears four times in "A Midsummer Night's Dream". Gawd was in use from the late 1300s as an alternative spelling of gaud, an ornamental bead found in a rosary. By the late 1500s it had been adapted into the adjective gaudy meaning showy, tastelessly fine.

knacks appears twice. It comes from the mid-1500s, meaning a trinket, but was developed from the late 1300s when it had the meaning of trick, deception, artifice. Knick-knack and nick-nack came into use during the 1600s. Knack as a special or particular way of doing something was first used in the late 1500s.
Apart from devising the plots and developing the characters in his many plays, Shakespeare certainly added to the richness of our ever-changing language. It's up to us to maintain that richness.

Sources checked while compiling this compendium of essays:
— Encyclopædia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite, DVD.
— Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, 2nd edition, Reader's Digest Association Ltd, London, 1977.
— Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (CD), 11th edition, 2003.
— Oxford English Dictionary, CD-ROM version 2, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Ayto, John, Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins, Bloomsbury, London 1990
Barnhart, R.K., editor, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, Chambers, Edinburgh/ The H.H.Wilson Company, 1988
Boyce, Charles, Encyclopedia of Shakespeare, Facts on File, New York, 1990
Culpeper's Complete Herbal (1653), Wordsworth Reference, Ware, Hertfordshire, 1995
Hinman, C., ed., The Norton Facsimile, The First Folio of Shakespeare, Second edition, W.W.Norton & Company, New York, 1996.
Law, Harriet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, HBJ Shakespeare, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Toronto 1990
Moshinsky, Elijah, director, A Midsummer Night's Dream, DVD, BBC Shakespeare Collection, 1981
Opie, I & P, ed, The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Oxford University Press, London 1951
Room, Adrian, ed., Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Cassell, 15th ed. 1997.
Room, Adrian, Brewer's Dictionary of Names, Cassell, Oxford 1992
Summers, M, translator & Hughes, P, editor, Malleus Maleficarum (1486), The Folio Society, London 1968
Wecker, J, Secrets of Art and Nature, London 1660
Woodward, M, Gerard's Herbal (1597), Senate/Tiger Books International, Twickenham 1998
Various, Wikipedia

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