The 420 Words That Shakespeare Invented

Inventors get a lot of love. Thomas Edison is held up as a tinkering genius. Steve Jobs is considered a saint in Silicon Valley. Hedy Lamar, meanwhile, may have been a Hollywood star but a new book makes clear her real legacy is in inventing the foundations of encryption. But while all these people invented things, it’s possible to invent something even more fundamental. Take Shakespeare: he invented words. And he invented more words—words that continue to shape the English language—than anyone else. By a long shot.

But what does it mean to “invent” words? How many words did Shakespeare invent? What kind of words? And which words are those exactly? Rather than just listing all the words Shakespeare invented, this post digs deeper into the how and the why (or “wherefore”) of Shakespeare’s literary creations.

How Many Words Did Shakespeare Invent?

1700! My, what a perfectly round number! Such a large and perfectly round number is misleading at best, and is more likely just wrong—there is in fact a bunch of debate about the accuracy of this number.

So who’s to blame for the uncertainty around the number of words Shakespeare invented? For starters, we can blame the Oxford English Dictionary. This famous dictionary (often called the OED for short) is famous, in part, because it provides incredibly thorough definitions of words, but also because it identifies the first time each word actually appeared in written English. Shakespeare appears as the first documented user of more words than any other writer, making it convenient to assume that he was the creator of all of those words.

In reality, though, many of these words were probably part of everyday discourse in Elizabethan England. So it’s highly likely that Shakespeare didn’t invent all of these words; he just produced the first preserved record of some of them. Ryan Buda, a writer at Letterpile, explains it like this:

But most likely, the word was in use for some time before it is seen in the writings of Shakespeare. The fact that the word first appears there does not necessarily mean that he made it up himself, but rather, he could have borrowed it from his peers or from conversations he had with others.

However, while Shakespeare might have been just the first person to write down some words, he definitely did create many words himself, plenty of which we still use to this day. The list a ways down below contains the 420 words that almost certainly originated from Shakespeare himself.

But all this leads to another question. What does it even mean to “invent” a word?

How Did Shakespeare Invent Words?

Some writers invent words in the same way Thomas Edison invented light bulbs: they cobble together bits of sound and create entirely new words without any meaning or relation to existing words. Lewis Carroll does in the first stanza of his “Jabberwocky” poem:

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Carroll totally made up words like “brillig,” “slithy,” “toves,” and “mimsy”; the first stanza alone contains 11 of these made-up words, which are known as nonce words. Words like these aren’t just meaningless, they’re also disposable, intended to be used just once.

Shakespeare did not create nonce words. He took an entirely different approach. When he invented words, he did it by working with existing words and altering them in new ways. More specifically, he would create new words by:

  • Conjoining two words
  • Changing verbs into adjectives
  • Changing nouns into verbs
  • Adding prefixes to words
  • Adding suffixes to words

The most exhaustive take on Shakespeare’s invented words comes from a nice little 874-page book entitled The Shakespeare Key by Charles and Mary Cowden Clarke. Here’s how they explain Shakespeare’s literary innovations:

Shakespeare, with the right and might of a true poet, and with his peculiar royal privilege as king of all poets, has minted several words that deserve to become current in our language. He coined them for his own special use to express his own special meanings in his own special passages; but they are so expressive and so well framed to be exponents of certain particulars in meanings common to us all, that they deserve to become generally adopted and used.

We can call what Shakespeare did to create new words “minting,” “coining” or “inventing.” Whatever term we use to describe it, Shakespeare was doing things with words that no one had ever thought to do before, and that’s what matters.

Shakespeare Didn’t Invent Nonsense Words

Though today readers often need the help of modern English translations to fully grasp the nuance and meaning of Shakespeare’s language, Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have had a much easier go of it.  Why? Two main reasons.

First, Shakespeare was part of a movement in English literature that introduced more prose into plays. (Earlier plays were written primarily in rhyming verse.) Shakespeare’s prose was similar to the style and cadence of everyday conversation in Elizabethan England, making it natural for members of his audience to understand.

In addition, the words he created were comprehensible intuitively because, once again, they were often built on the foundations of already existing words, and were not just unintelligible combinations of sound. Take “congreeted” for example. The prefix “con” means withand “greet” means to receive or acknowledge someone.

It therefore wasn’t a huge stretch for people to understand this line:

That, face to face and royal eye to eye.
You have congreeted.

(Henry V, Act 5, Scene 2)

Shakespeare also made nouns into verbs. He was the first person to use friend as a verb, predating Mark Zuckerberg by about 395 years.

And what so poor a man as Hamlet is
May do, to express his love and friending to you

(Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5)

Other times, despite his proclivity for making compound words, Shakespeare reached into his vast Latin vocabulary for loanwords.

His heart fracted and corroborate.

(Henry V, Act 2, Scene 1)

Here the Latin word fractus means “broken.” Take away the –us and add in the English suffixed, and a new English word is born.

New Words Are Nothing New

Shakespeare certainly wasn’t the first person to make up words. It’s actually entirely commonplace for new words to enter a language. We’re adding new words and terms to our “official” dictionaries every year. In the past few years, the Merriam-Webster dictionary has added several new words and phrases, like these:

  • bokeh
  • elderflower
  • fast fashion
  • first world problem
  • ginger
  • microaggression
  • mumblecore
  • pareidolia
  • ping
  • safe space
  • wayback
  • wayback machine
  • woo-woo

So inventing words wasn’t something unique to Shakespeare or Elizabethan England. It’s still going on all the time.

But Shakespeare Invented a Lot of New Words

So why did Shakespeare have to make up hundreds of new words? For starters, English was smaller in Shakespeare’s time. The language contained many fewer words, and not enough for a literary genius like Shakespeare. How many words? No one can be sure. One estimates, one from Encyclopedia Americana, puts the number at 50,000-60,000, likely not including medical and scientific terms.

During Shakespeare’s time, the number of words in the language began to grow. Edmund Weiner, deputy chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, explains it this way:

The vocabulary of English expanded greatly during the early modern period. Writers were well aware of this and argued about it. Some were in favour of loanwords to express new concepts, especially from Latin. Others advocated the use of existing English words, or new compounds of them, for this purpose. Others advocated the revival of obsolete words and the adoption of regional dialect.

In Shakespeare’s collected writings, he used a total of 31,534 different words. Whatever the size of the English lexicon at the time, Shakespeare was in command of a substantial portion of it. Jason Kottke estimates that Shakespeare knew around 66,534 words, which suggests Shakespeare was pushing the boundaries of English vocab as he knew it. He had to make up some new words.

The Complete List of Words Shakespeare Invented

Compiling a definitive list of every word that Shakespeare ever invented is impossible. But creating a list of the words that Shakespeare almost certainly invented can be done. We generated list of words below by starting with the words that Shakespeare was the first to use in written language, and then applying research that has identified which words were probably in everyday use during Shakespeare’s time. The result are 420 bona fide words minted, coined, and invented by Shakespeare, from “academe” to “zany”:

  1. academe
  2. accessible
  3. accommodation
  4. addiction
  5. admirable
  6. aerial
  7. airless
  8. amazement
  9. anchovy
  10. arch-villain
  11. auspicious
  12. bacheolorship
  13. barefaced
  14. baseless
  15. batty
  16. beachy
  17. bedroom
  18. belongings
  19. birthplace
  20. black-faced
  21. bloodstained
  22. bloodsucking
  23. blusterer
  24. bodikins
  25. braggartism
  26. brisky
  27. broomstaff
  28. budger
  29. bump
  30. buzzer
  31. candle holder
  32. catlike
  33. characterless
  34. cheap
  35. chimney-top
  36. chopped
  37. churchlike
  38. circumstantial
  39. clangor
  40. cold-blooded
  41. coldhearted
  42. compact
  43. consanguineous
  44. control
  45. coppernose
  46. countless
  47. courtship
  48. critical
  49. cruelhearted
  50. Dalmatian
  51. dauntless
  52. dawn
  53. day’s work
  54. deaths-head
  55. defeat
  56. depositary
  57. dewdrop
  58. dexterously
  59. disgraceful
  60. distasteful
  61. distrustful
  62. dog-weary
  63. doit (a Dutch coin: ‘a pittance’)
  64. domineering
  65. downstairs
  66. dwindle
  67. East Indies
  68. embrace
  69. employer
  70. employment
  71. enfranchisement
  72. engagement
  73. enrapt
  74. epileptic
  75. equivocal
  76. eventful
  77. excitement
  78. expedience
  79. expertness
  80. exposure
  81. eyedrop
  82. eyewink
  83. fair-faced
  84. fairyland
  85. fanged
  86. fap
  87. far-off
  88. farmhouse
  89. fashionable
  90. fashionmonger
  91. fat-witted
  92. fathomless
  93. featureless
  94. fiendlike
  95. fitful
  96. fixture
  97. fleshment
  98. flirt-gill
  99. flowery
  100. fly-bitten
  101. footfall
  102. foppish
  103. foregone
  104. fortune-teller
  105. foul mouthed
  106. Franciscan
  107. freezing
  108. fretful
  109. full-grown
  110. fullhearted
  111. futurity
  112. gallantry
  113. garden house
  114. generous
  115. gentlefolk
  116. glow
  117. go-between
  118. grass plot
  119. gravel-blind
  120. gray-eyed
  121. green-eyed
  122. grief-shot
  123. grime
  124. gust
  125. half-blooded
  126. heartsore
  127. hedge-pig
  128. hell-born
  129. hint
  130. hobnail
  131. homely
  132. honey-tongued
  133. hornbook
  134. hostile
  135. hot-blooded
  136. howl
  137. hunchbacked
  138. hurly
  139. idle-headed
  140. ill-tempered
  141. ill-used
  142. impartial
  143. imploratory
  144. import
  145. in question
  146. inauspicious
  147. indirection
  148. indistinguishable
  149. inducement
  150. informal
  151. inventorially
  152. investment
  153. invitation
  154. invulnerable
  155. jaded
  156. juiced
  157. keech
  158. kickie-wickie
  159. kitchen-wench
  160. lackluster
  161. ladybird
  162. lament
  163. land-rat
  164. laughable
  165. leaky
  166. leapfrog
  167. lewdster
  168. loggerhead
  169. lonely
  170. long-legged
  171. love letter
  172. lustihood
  173. lustrous
  174. madcap
  175. madwoman
  176. majestic
  177. malignancy
  178. manager
  179. marketable
  180. marriage bed
  181. militarist
  182. mimic
  183. misgiving
  184. misquote
  185. mockable
  186. money’s worth
  187. monumental
  188. moonbeam
  189. mortifying
  190. motionless
  191. mountaineer
  192. multitudinous
  193. neglect
  194. never-ending
  195. newsmonger
  196. nimble-footed
  197. noiseless
  198. nook-shotten
  199. obscene
  200. ode
  201. offenseful
  202. offenseless
  203. Olympian
  204. on purpose
  205. oppugnancy
  206. outbreak
  207. overblown
  208. overcredulous
  209. overgrowth
  210. overview
  211. pageantry
  212. pale-faced
  213. passado
  214. paternal
  215. pebbled
  216. pedant
  217. pedantical
  218. pendulous
  219. pignut
  220. pious
  221. please-man
  222. plumpy
  223. posture
  224. prayerbook
  225. priceless
  226. profitless
  227. Promethean
  228. protester
  229. published
  230. puking (disputed)
  231. puppy-dog
  232. pushpin
  233. quarrelsome
  234. radiance
  235. rascally
  236. rawboned
  237. reclusive
  238. refractory
  239. reinforcement
  240. reliance
  241. remorseless
  242. reprieve
  243. resolve
  244. restoration
  245. restraint
  246. retirement
  247. revokement
  248. revolting
  249. ring carrier
  250. roadway
  251. roguery
  252. rose-cheeked
  253. rose-lipped
  254. rumination
  255. ruttish
  256. sanctimonious
  257. satisfying
  258. savage
  259. savagery
  260. schoolboy
  261. scrimer
  262. scrubbed
  263. scuffle
  264. seamy
  265. self-abuse
  266. shipwrecked
  267. shooting star
  268. shudder
  269. silk stocking
  270. silliness
  271. skim milk
  272. skimble-skamble
  273. slugabed
  274. soft-hearted
  275. spectacled
  276. spilth
  277. spleenful
  278. sportive
  279. stealthy
  280. stillborn
  281. successful
  282. suffocating
  283. tanling
  284. tardiness
  285. time-honored
  286. title page
  287. to arouse
  288. to barber
  289. to bedabble
  290. to belly
  291. to besmirch
  292. to bet
  293. to bethump
  294. to blanket
  295. to cake
  296. to canopy
  297. to castigate
  298. to cater
  299. to champion
  300. to comply
  301. to compromise
  302. to cow
  303. to cudgel
  304. to dapple
  305. to denote
  306. to dishearten
  307. to dislocate
  308. to educate
  309. to elbow
  310. to enmesh
  311. to enthrone
  312. to fishify
  313. to glutton
  314. to gnarl
  315. to gossip
  316. to grovel
  317. to happy
  318. to hinge
  319. to humor
  320. to impede
  321. to inhearse
  322. to inlay
  323. to instate
  324. to lapse
  325. to muddy
  326. to negotiate
  327. to numb
  328. to offcap
  329. to operate
  330. to out-Herod
  331. to out-talk
  332. to out-villain
  333. to outdare
  334. to outfrown
  335. to outscold
  336. to outsell
  337. to outweigh
  338. to overpay
  339. to overpower
  340. to overrate
  341. to palate
  342. to pander
  343. to perplex
  344. to petition
  345. to rant
  346. to reverb
  347. to reword
  348. to rival
  349. to sate
  350. to secure
  351. to sire
  352. to sneak
  353. to squabble
  354. to subcontract
  355. to sully
  356. to supervise
  357. to swagger
  358. to torture
  359. to un muzzle
  360. to unbosom
  361. to uncurl
  362. to undervalue
  363. to undress
  364. to unfool
  365. to unhappy
  366. to unsex
  367. to widen
  368. tortive
  369. traditional
  370. tranquil
  371. transcendence
  372. trippingly
  373. unaccommodated
  374. unappeased
  375. unchanging
  376. unclaimed
  377. unearthy
  378. uneducated
  379. unfrequented
  380. ungoverned
  381. ungrown
  382. unhelpful
  383. unhidden
  384. unlicensed
  385. unmitigated
  386. unmusical
  387. unpolluted
  388. unpublished
  389. unquestionable
  390. unquestioned
  391. unreal
  392. unrivaled
  393. unscarred
  394. unscratched
  395. unsolicited
  396. unsullied
  397. unswayed
  398. untutored
  399. unvarnished
  400. unwillingness
  401. upstairs
  402. useful
  403. useless
  404. valueless
  405. varied
  406. varletry
  407. vasty
  408. vulnerable
  409. watchdog
  410. water drop
  411. water fly
  412. well-behaved
  413. well-bred
  414. well-educated
  415. well-read
  416. wittolly
  417. worn out
  418. wry-necked
  419. yelping
  420. zany

Words That Shakespeare Invented – Resource List

Words, words, words.

(Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2)