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I don't pretend to know much about the history of literature, but I was always told that Shakespeare invented an awful lot of words, 1700 is usually the number given. How did anyone know what they meant? I know some were portmanteaus, and some were nouns transformed into verbs, the meaning of which may have been discernible, but what about entirely new words he made up?

Did each play come with a list of words he'd invented? Was there a glossary attached to his works? Or did he just tell the actors what they meant and let them try portray the meaning to the audience?

For example, let's say Shakespeare invented the word "mimic". How did this word come to mean or was discovered to mean "thing that copies another thing" or "to copy another thing"?

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    Did Shakespeare actually invent those words, or are his works merely the oldest surviving written text containing them? – Gilles Feb 18 '17 at 23:46
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    Could you give an example of the kind of word you are looking for? – Matrim Cauthon Feb 19 '17 at 0:30
  • @MatrimCauthon There aren't any specific words I had in mind, but he is credited with coining so many and I have always wondered how people would understand. I guess it would be the same for any new word entering a lexicon. – darthspongebob Feb 19 '17 at 0:44
  • @Gilles good point – darthspongebob Feb 19 '17 at 0:45
  • Historical Mastermind – Valorum Feb 19 '17 at 16:45
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Actually, most of the new words appears to have based on existing words to some extent: either taking a noun and turning into a verb or vice versa (one example of this would be "to dawn"), or shortening a word or adding a new beginning ending ("irregulous"), or joining two words together ("eyeball"): all these would be rather easily understood.

More difficult, but not impossible for at least parts of his audience, would be borrowing words from other languages, especially Latin.

These would have covered the majority of his new words. There were a few exceptions, but some of those are onomatopoeia, such as "gnarling". Ther remains a very few beyond that, and for those, such as "potch" (Coriolanus: "I'll potch at him some way"), we have to remember that some sounds actually have a sort of meaning. Take "slimy", "slither" and "sliding": it would seem that "sli" suggest a certain meaning, so a hypothetical word formed with that combination ("slinny") would suggest something similar. Context would also help. If you really want to see how one can "understand" a totally new word, I would suggest reading some nonsense verse, such as Jabberwocky.

Sources

I found this to be a useful overview of words first appearing in Shakespeare; from the same site is a more in-depth coverage of how he coined words (at the end of which are a few entirely new words). For the meaning of sounds, this Wikipedia article gives some introduction (I have also read about it in books on linguistics, but those were in Swedish).

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