Shakespeare May Not Have Invented So Many Words

Shakespeare has long been credited with coining many common English words and phrases. Arguably the most important English-language wordsmith of all time may have taken the title quite literally on occasion, but the extent to which he actually invented many of the terms he is commonly known for is being disputed by an Australian academic.

The Oxford English Dictionary includes over 33,000 Shakespeare quotations. Of these, 1,500 are cited as the first appearance of an English word, and another 7,500 are cited as the first time the phrase was used with that particular meaning. In his article for the University of Melbourne , Dr. Davis McInnis claims many of these citations are the result of bias.

“But the OED is biased: especially in the early days, it preferred literary examples, and famous ones at that…”“ The Complete Works of Shakespeare was frequently raided for early examples of word use, even though words or phrases might have been used earlier, by less famous or less literary people.”

Two of the famous Shakespearean phrases McInnis believes were mistakenly credited to The Bard are “it’s Greek to me” and “wild-goose chase.”

The former was thought to be first used in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when the character Casca says  “Those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me” of Cicero. The phrase refers to speech that’s hard to understand. McInnis, however, points to it’s usage in  Robert Greene’s The Scottish History of James the Fourth, printed in 1598 and possibly written in 1590. McInnis dates Julius Caesar to 1599.

“Wild-goose chase” is cited in the OED as having first appeared in Romeo and Juliet in 1595, when Mercutio says  “Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five. Was I with you there for the goose?”  McInnis again brings up an earlier example in English poet Gervase Markham’s book about horsemanship written in 1539.

An Oxford English Dictionary representative announced a full scale revision in light of many of these discoveries, that aims to make use of the digital resources McInnis used to find these earlier examples.  “As part of the process, we have uncovered earlier evidence for many words and phrases previously attributed to Shakespeare.”

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