William Shakespeare
Use your words

To be or not to be… original

The Guardian: The game is up: Shakespeare’s language not as original as dictionaries think

In an article for the University of Melbourne, Dr David McInnis, a Shakespeare lecturer at the institution, accuses the Oxford English Dictionary of “bias” over its citation of Shakespeare as the originator of hundreds of words in English.

“His audiences had to understand at least the gist of what he meant, so his words were mostly in circulation already or were logical combinations of pre-existing concepts.”

McInnis: If something happens “without rhyme or reason”, people are said to be quoting Shakespeare’s As You Like It, when Rosalind asks Orlando whether he is as head-over-heels in love as his rhymes suggest, and Orlando replies “Neither rhyme nor reason can express how much”.

The OED traces the phrase back to the 1400s – centuries before Shakespeare. So why do we think it’s Shakespeare’s coinage?

Probably because, as happens so frequently, Shakespeare isn’t the first to think of something, but he presents it in such a clever or memorable way, that it becomes firmly associated with his version.

McInnis also traces the roots of other famous ‘Shakespearean’ phrases like “it’s greek to me”, “a wild goose chase”, “eaten out of house and home”. It’s not all OED ‘bias’ however; the bard did have a knack for coining and popularising turns of phrase, like “to make an ass of oneself”…

To describe behaving stupidly and embarrassing yourself as “making an ass of yourself” seems like a very contemporary expression, but Shakespeare seems to have genuinely invented both the easy-to-quote phrase and a very memorable situation. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bottom the Weaver is magically turned into an ass. Other characters remark upon Bottom’s transformation, but he thinks they’re just mocking him: “This is to make an ass of me, to fright me, if they could.”

See also: Churchillian drift: How great quotations find their way to famous names

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