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The Scrivener: William's Wide Word Web

...It is said that his works comprise nearly 885,000 words, which is about 100,000 more than in the Bible....

Brian Barratt, himself no mean wordsman, takes us on a wonderful lexicological tour through the works of the greatest of all playwrights.

William Shakespeare wrote 41 plays which have, in total, about 1,200 characters in them. He also wrote poems, including 154 sonnets. 126 of them are addressed to a 'fair youth'. The others are dedicated to a mysterious ‘dark lady’.

It is said that his works comprise nearly 885,000 words, which is about 100,000 more than in the Bible. All this writing was achieved during a short period between the late 1580s and about 1613.

He used a vocabulary of about 20,000 words. That figure classifies such groups as go, gone, going as one word. If you add the derivatives and also compound words, his vocabulary grows to about 30,000 words.

The extent of Shakespeare’s written vocabulary, 400 years ago, was about that of an average fairly well educated person in the 21st century. A university lecturer nowadays has a vocabulary of 50,000 to 80,000 words. These figures might not reflect the latest research but whichever way you look at it, the Bard had a remarkable vocabulary for his time.

A few people do not believe that Shakespeare wrote his plays, but that they are someone else's work. Let's leave that to the academics and the conspiracy theorists and explore some aspects of the great man’s wide word web.

We can learn a bit about contemporary practices, knowledge and beliefs when we check the approximate number of times he refers to various animals.

Horses have priority, mentioned over 250 times. That's pretty easy to understand when you keep in mind their role in those times. Other animals, real and imaginary, include approximately:

200 dogs (but some of these uses are derogatory references to men)

100 lions (sometimes used figuratively to denote a courageous man)

50 cats (also used in insulting reference to an unpleasant person)

50 wolves (wolf is also used to denote a greedy person)

35 apes (ape is sometimes used to denote one who mimics or impersonates, or a fool)

25 tigers

17 dragons

13 monkeys

10 whales

8 camels

8 leopards, pard

7 elephants

4 moon-calves (a moon-calf is a monster or misshapen creature, also an aborted foetus)

3 basilisks (a mythical beast, hatched by a serpent from a cock's egg, which killed its victims with its gaze or its breath)

3 cockatrices (another name for the basilisk)

2 griffins (a mythical beast which was part lion, part eagle)

2 leviathans (also mentioned in the Bible, a sea monster or whale)

1 rhinoceros (in Macbeth)

But there is not one hippopotamus (which is mentioned five times in the Bible as a behemoth) even though the word had been used in English since the 1300s.

We can also pick up a bit of information about domestic conventions:

Knives are mentioned about 70 times. However, most of these refer to the knife as a dagger or weapon, not to a polite dining knife as we know it. Most food was eaten with one's hands, perhaps the help of a knife.

Spoons as eating implements are mentioned less than five times. Soups and other liquids were drunk from cups. There is one mention of spoon-meat, food to be eaten with a spoon.

Forks are mentioned three times, referring to the tip of an arrow and tongue of a snake, but not as eating utensils. Although forks of various kinds appeared during the 15th century, their use as eating utensils was still developing in Shakespeare's time.

Dinner is mentioned over 75 times.

Breakfast appears 16 times. This was another relatively new word in Shakespeare's time.

Lunch is never mentioned. Luncheon and lunch were very new to the language, first used in the late 1500s.

It is believed that the Bard invented or coined many new words. His vocabulary was also very up to date. Here are just a few terms which he used only once or very few times:

barefaced (perhaps coined by Shakespeare)

cistern (meaning a pond or natural reservoir)

dislocate (coined by Shakespeare)

eventful (perhaps coined by Shakespeare and used only once in his plays)

flap-dragon (see below)

laughable (perhaps coined by Shakespeare)

pribble, prabble (idle chatter, prattle; perhaps coined by Shakespeare)

salad (used figuratively by Cleopatra in Caesar and Cleopatra: 'My salad days, When I was green in judgment, cold in blood.'

sallet (used half a dozen times literally and figuratively, referring to what we now know as salad)

Now here’s a real curiosity: The longest word used by Shakespeare is honorificabilitudinitatibus. If you don’t believe me, you can check Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 5, Scene 1:
O, they have lived long on the alms-basket of words.
I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word;
for thou art not so long by the head as
honorificabilitudinitatibus: thou art easier
swallowed than a flap-dragon.

It is related to a word which was and is very rarely used, honorificabilitudinity, meaning honourableness.

Flap-dragon first appeared in print in Shakepeare's plays. He mentioned it twice. He also used the verb flap-dragoned. What exactly does it mean? Well, there's a nice definition 250 years later, in Dr Samuel Johnson's Dictionary:

A play [game] in which they catch raisins out of burning brandy, and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them.
Shakespeare's wonderful wide word web is not only extensive — it is also amazingly eclectic.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2003, 2007, 2011

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