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Did Shakespeare Really Invent The Word 'Elbow'?


A quick search on the internet will produce hundreds of words and phrases attributed to William Shakespeare, many – or most – of which he may have invented.

A few phrases have taken on a life of their own as popular titles in culture: “Brave New World,” “Into Thin Air,” “Heart Of Gold.”

Other phrases have been used so many times writers are told to avoid them: Dead as a doornail. Haven’t slept a wink. In a pickle. Love is blind. Wear his heart on his sleeve.

Then there are Shakespeare’s words. All remarkable due to their commonality. What other word could better describe “alligator,” “road,” or “elbow”?

The words “lonely,” “obscene,” “majestic,” “bloody,” “bump,” “wormhole,” “suspicious,” “summit,” “excellent,” “assassinate” and “eyeball” are all also attributed to the Bard. And the list keeps going: “dwindle,” “frugal,” “bandit,” “madcap,” “moonbeam” and “amazement.”

There is no question that the playwright’s plays and poems — written some 400 years ago — contain a stunning number of words in common use today. But did he actually invent them?

“Anybody who assigns a number of new words to Shakespeare’s vocabulary is merely guessing,” said Scott Kaiser, director of company development for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

He was previously the head voice and text coach and has written an excellent book called “Shakespeare’s Wordcraft.”

“We don’t have books from the time. The vast majority of what was printed at the time was lost to us. There is absolutely no way of calculating the new words he created,” he said. “You can only say with confidence based on the books we currently have this is the first time it’s appeared in print — in Shakespeare’s folio.”

Next time you read a listicle or hear a friend recite all the words Shakespeare has authored a few centuries ago, remember: All that glitters is not gold.

Shakespeare said that — we think.

About Oregon Experience's Documentary On The Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Experience explores the origins and the evolution of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in Ashland—the oldest and largest professional regional rotating reparatory theater company in the United States.  It airs on October 19 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV. You can watch online here.

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