Uniquely Shakespearean

Cover of The Shakespeare Miscellany by David & Ben Crystal

[T]here are 357 cases where the Oxford English Dictionary has Shakespeare as the only recorded user of a word, in a particular sense, on one or more occasions.

David Crystal & Ben Crystal The Shakespeare Miscellany (2005)

Shakespeare is well known for being a wordsmith. Elsewhere in their excellent Shakespeare Miscellany, the Crystals note that the OED contains 1035 cases in which Shakespeare is recorded as the first user of a word, with the next user not recorded until at least 25 years later—suggesting Shakespeare coined the word. Many of these words haven’t made it to the present day, however—such as circummure (“to wall round”), facinorious (“extremely wicked”) and pibble-pabble (“to indulge in idle talk”).

More striking are the hundreds of words, as noted above, for which Shakespeare is the only recorded user—ever. It would appear that a good quarter of his coinings fell on completely deaf ears.

For your delectation, I offer a small sample of these uniquely Shakespearean words.



To smear or spread with bitumen

Pericles, Prince of Tyre Act 3, Scene 1
Second Sailor: Sir, we have a chest beneath the hatches, caulked
and bitumed ready.

Shakespeare has formed a verb from bitumen, which is a Latin word meaning “pitch” or “resin”. But the Latin seems to have been borrowed from Gaulish, in which a word something like betu designated a birch tree, or birch resin.



Of a sword, lacking a sheath

Taming of the Shrew Act 3, Scene 2
BIONDELLO: Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old
jerkin, a pair of old breeches thrice turned, a pair
of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled,
another laced, an old rusty sword ta’en out of the
town-armory, with a broken hilt, and chapeless

A chape is a plate of metal inlaid in some other material. It was applied particularly to the metal cover protecting the tip of the sheath of a sword or dagger. It also seems, as in Shakespeare’s line above, to have been used to designate the whole sheath. By analogy, the pale tip of a fox’s tail is called a chape. And, in another strand of meaning, the metal bar by which a buckle is attached to a belt is called the chape.



To greet mutually

Henry V Act 5, Scene 2
BURGUNDY: My duty to you both, on equal love,
Great Kings of France and England! That I have labour’d,
With all my wits, my pains and strong endeavours,
To bring your most imperial majesties
Unto this bar and royal interview,
Your mightiness on both parts best can witness.
Since then my office hath so far prevail’d
That, face to face and royal eye to eye,
You have congreeted

Greet is a Germanic word, of uncertain origin. Its earliest meanings in continental Europe were varied—”to approach”, “to call upon”, “to annoy”, “to attack”, “to call to action”, “to salute”. In English, only the last meaning survives.



To melt or dissolve out of a crystalline condition

Antony and Cleopatra Act 4, Scene 12
MARK ANTONY: The hearts
That spaniel’d me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their sweets
On blossoming Caesar

The word candy is of Indian origin, from the Sanskrit khanda, “sugar in crystalline pieces”. This filtered through Persian and Arabic to reach Latin as saccharum candi—”sugar candy”. The combination is tautologous, and Shakespeare seems to have understood the candy part to mean “crystal”.



Studying and following fashion

Much Ado About Nothing Act 5, Scene 1
ANTONIO: Hold you content. What, man! I know them, yea,
And what they weigh, even to the utmost scruple,—
Scrambling, out-facing, fashion-monging boys,
That lie and cog and flout, deprave and slander,
Go anticly, show outward hideousness,
And speak off half a dozen dangerous words,
How they might hurt their enemies, if they durst;
And this is all.

Fashion comes from Latin facere, “to make”; monger comes from Old English mangian, “to trade” or “to deal”. The latter gives us cheesemonger, fishmonger, ironmonger and warmonger, among others. It also gave us the now-extinct verb to mong, which Shakespeare uses above, meaning “to traffic” or “to barter”.



A jocular term for a wife or sweetheart

All’s Well That Ends Well Act 2, Scene 3
PAROLLES: To the wars, my boy, to the wars!
He wears his honour in a box unseen,
That hugs his kickie-wickie here at home,
Spending his manly marrow in her arms,
Which should sustain the bound and high curvet
Of Mars’s fiery steed.

Quite why a wife or sweetheart was a kickie-wickie, kicky-wicky or kicksie-wicksie is open to debate. One fears it has something to do with kickshaw, from the French quelque chose, meaning “something”. In Shakespeare’s time it was applied to things that were dainty and elegant, but of no perceived value—including people.



Towards denial or disbelief

The Winter’s Tale Act 2, Scene 1
HERMIONE: But I’d say he had not,
And I’ll be sworn you would believe my saying,
Howe’er you lean to the nayward.

Literally, this means “towards no”. Although nowadays we look on yea and nay as simply archaic version of yes and no, there used to be a difference. Yes and no were used to respond to a question or statement couched as a negative. So to the statement, “You don’t really believe that!” one could respond either by disagreeing using yes (“Yes, I do really believe that”), or agreeing using no (“No, I don’t really believe that”). To a question or statement couched as a positive (“You really believe that!”) one could agree with yea (“Yea, I really believe that”) or disagree with nay (“Nay, I don’t really believe that”). Presumably, the tradition of yea and nay votes in the US Senate harks back to this usage, since the topic to be voted on is usually couched in a positive statement. And the French still make this distinction using two words for yes—oui and si. Oui is used to agree with a positive statement, si to disagree with a negative statement.



Fit to be shaved

ANTONIO: The man i’ the moon’s too slow—till new-born chins
Be rough and razorable

A razor is something that razes. The original meaning of the verb to raze (or rase) was “to cut” or “to scrape”. That meaning evolved into “to remove by scraping”, which is where razor comes from. But one could also remove writing from paper or vellum by scraping—the origin of the verb erase. And it is that usage of raze, implying permanent and complete removal, that remains with us, often in the phrase “to raze to the ground”.

skains mate

skɛəns meɪt

Meaning unknown

Romeo and Juliet Act 2, Scene 4

Nurse: Scurvy knave! I am none of his flirt-gills; I am
none of his skains mates.

The list would not be complete without one mysterious offering. It’s not clear from Shakespeare’s usage what the Nurse actually meant to imply—and since Shakespeare is the only person we know of to have used the phrase, we’ll never know, barring the discovery of some new written evidence.

(Flirt-gill, on other hand, we know. The gill has nothing to do with fish. It is, rather, a woman’s name, pronounced with a soft “g”. It sometimes appears as flirt-gillian, and we also encounter gill-flirt or jill-flirt. The gill is a nickname for a young woman; the flirt refers to what the woman does. So, as the OED rather stuffily puts it, the phrase indicates “a woman of light or loose behaviour”.)

2 thoughts on “Uniquely Shakespearean”

    1. It seems there were several things going on.
      There was a vocabulary expansion going on in Early Modern English, anyway, as the Renaissance drove a need for new words. And Shakespeare’s primacy in the OED corpus has been steadily chipped away now that more contemporary texts have been digitized – computer searches are now turning up earlier usages of words like “puke” and “assassination” which were previously viewed as Shakespeare coinings. So Shakespeare lived in a time when neologism was all the rage, and some of his “coinings” are probably just the first written examples we know of.
      And then again, given that a lot of neologizing was going on, Shakespeare probably felt particularly free to use neologisms himself – to help preserve the metre, or perhaps even to help the characterization (“this is the sort of person who uses neologisms”).

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