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William Shakespeare is famous for using many words in his plays which were new introductions to the English language. According to Shakespeare Online:

The English language owes a great debt to Shakespeare. He invented over 1700 of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original.

However, other sources claim that many of the words often thought to have been coined by Shakespeare were in fact already in use before his time. From Merriam-Webster:

It should be noted that at no point did the editors of the OED say "We have X entries for which Shakespeare is the earliest known user; therefore he invented X number of words." [...] As lexicographers have gained access to electronic databases the number of words for which Shakespeare is the first recorded source has shrunk dramatically. Yet we still are regularly informed that "Shakespeare coined the word X" in formats ranging from Internet lists to academic papers. So in the spirit of lexical clarity—or, if you prefer, punctiliousness—we present you with a list of words that people love to say were invented by Shakespeare.

They were not.

On the other hand, I remember reading that some words which appeared in Shakespeare plays caused problems for the typesetters when the plays first went to print, due to their unfamiliarity. So it does seem to be definitely true that he invented at least some words.

While it must by now be impossible to tell in many cases whether or not a given word in one of Shakespeare's plays had ever been used in English before him, I'm hoping that it will be possible to come up with at least a ball-park figure, somewhere between none and 1700.

Roughly how many of the words in Shakespeare's plays were new additions to the English language?

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    Meta post. – HDE 226868 Jan 19 '17 at 0:47
  • See also english.stackexchange.com/q/4465/32815 "Did Shakespeare really invent 1700 words?" – b_jonas Mar 3 '17 at 13:27
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    At best we could make a list of words that we don't have an earlier source for yet. But that does not prove that any of them were invented by Shakespeare. We can never eliminate the possibility of earlier usage that was simply never recorded or of which the recording has been lost. – Mark Baker Mar 13 '17 at 12:39
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Strictly speaking, it is not possible to determine whether Shakespeare invented the words that had not been recorded before they appeared in his works. It is possible that at least some of these words circulated in spoken language before Shakespeare picked them up. Of course, I am not claiming that Shakespeare invented none of the words that were first recorded in his works. Typesetting errors may be a hint, but these could also result from bad handwriting. (Sidenote: Typesetters did not necessarily work from a manuscript by Shakespeare. They might work from the author's foul papers, a fair copy, a prompt book, or in some cases, especially many plays in the First Folio, from an earlier printed version.)

According to The Shakespeare Miscellany (Penguin, 2005) by David Crystal (a linguist) and his son Ben Crystal (an actor),

  • there are "357 instances where Shakespeare is the only recorded user of a word in one or more of its senses" (emphasis added),
  • "1035 instances where Shakespeare is the first of several people using a word, in one or more senses, but the later usages do not occur until at least twenty-five years later" (and this 25-year gap makes is plausible that Shakespeare was the first user),
  • " 642 instances where Shakespeare is the first of several people using a word, in one or more senses, but the later usages of the word occur within twenty-five years" (so it's less likely that Shakespeare invented them).

The Shakespeare Miscellany also lists these words; the first category on pages 108–109; the second category on pages 114–117. The sum of the first two categories is 1392; if you add the third, which is more doubtful, you get 2034 new words.

There are two provisos:

  1. As already mentioned in the question, these numbers are based on comparisons with the first recorded usage recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary and may therefore need to be revised when other Early Modern English texts are found and analysed. (See The Shakespeare Miscellany, p. 64.)
  2. The number is also influenced by what scholars include in the Shakespeare canon. For example, Eric Sams' edition of Edward III, a play that was traditionally not part of the Shakespeare canon, contains a painstaking analysis of words in the play that predate the first recorded usage in the OED. For example, The Shakespeare Miscellany does not treat Edward III as part of the Shakespeare canon, but the play was included in the second edition of the Oxford Complete Works of Shakespeare (2005). (Another can of worms is scenes in Shakespeare plays that may have been written by other dramatists, such as Christopher Marlowe, George Peele and George Wilkins.)

Update: Shakespeare was not the only author who coined new words. The page Middle and Early Modern English: From Chaucer to Milton notes (my emphasis):

During the early modern period, between 10,000 and 25,000 new words entered the English vocabulary, primarily loan words adapted from Latin and foreign languages. Accordingly, many early modern writers stand as the first evidence for a particular word in the Oxford English Dictionary. As of May 9, 2017, Shakespeare is cited 1495 times as the first evidence of a word; dictionary writers Thomas Blount (1618–1679), Randle Cotgrave (d. 1634?), and John Florio (1553–1625) are cited as the first evidence for 1466, 1350, and 1201 words respectively; and John Milton holds 556 first citations for a word.

These numbers are not fixed for all time, since scholars are still discovering older citations of words whose creation was originally attributed to (for example) Milton.

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    Thank you for this well-researched answer! You've even helped to define the scope of the question, which wasn't really clear on what I'd consider convincing evidence that a word really was coined by Shakespeare. I hope you get well-earned Revival and Necromancer badges for this :-) – Rand al'Thor Nov 30 '17 at 1:37
  • It seems pretty unlikely that he picked up 1,392 words that nobody else did. At the very east he popularised them, but the first sentence seems overly harsh considering the evidence. I mean did his contemporaries include as many popular words and phrases? – Chuck Le Butt Jun 6 '18 at 11:37
  • @ChuckLeButt We can't know which words circulated in spoken English unless they were also used in written English. That's why we cannot know with certainty how many words Shakespeare invented. Concerning his contemporaries: I once read that one of his contemporaries was roughly as creative with new words as Shakespeare but fewer of his word creations became accepted in the general language. Overall, I don't see why my first sentence is overly harsh; it is a statement of fact. – Christophe Strobbe Jun 6 '18 at 11:52
  • It just appears to be placing a lot of emphasis on something which all evidence suggests is only partially true at best. – Chuck Le Butt Jun 7 '18 at 13:47
  • @ChuckLeButt We should take this discussion to the chat room; comments are not intended for extended discussions. – Christophe Strobbe Jun 7 '18 at 15:27

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