Saturday, November 1, 2014

Shakespeare Didn’t Invent “Gossip”

Professional word coiner.
The plays were a sideline.
A tweet popped up on my twitter feed today:
Shakespeare invented over 2,000 commonly used words, such as “amazement,” “luggage,” “gossip,” “bump,” and “eyeball.”
As always, points for use of the serial comma. Demerits for everything else. My first complaint is the use of the word “invented.” Shakespeare didn’t invent any words. Not a one. Not two thousand, but zero. Zilch. The only people who actually “invent” words are the creators of artificial languages, and even then, you might want to restrict it to those who create a priori languages. After all, Ludovic Zamenhof didn’t so much invent the Esperanto word for “bread,” pano, as adapt it from the French pain, while when Edward Powell Foster constructed Ro, his word polab indicates that it’s a food item, and so on.[1]

Let’s modify the claim, and suggest that Shakespeare coined these various words. Maybe. I argue not. Many words exist in spoken form before someone writes them down. A classic example of this is the word gay in the sense of “homosexual.” Other evidence makes it clear that the sense had become established before its first recorded use in the 1938 Bringing Up Baby. The Internet Movie Database states that Cary Grant’s line was an ad lib, but you wouldn’t make a claim that Cary Grant invented “gay.”[2]

Is this really true?
If Shakespeare had been such a relentless coiner of new words, you might think his audience would take notice. “I like his plays, but I have no idea what his characters are saying; they keep dropping in words no one has heard of before.” What’s more likely is that he was using the language of the day and just giving us the first surviving evidence of the words use.

Except, of course, when that’s not what happened at all. I remember reading a few years ago that German scholars are fond of pointing out where the OED cites Shakespeare or Chaucer as a word’s earliest use in that sense, when another, prior, author can be shown to have beaten them to the punch.[3] I suspect that one thing that’s going on here is inertia. It takes a lot of work to find the absolute earliest use of a word. The use of databases has certainly made this easier, but the corpus of English usage is massive, and tomorrow it will be even more massive. I remember an effort by Merriam-Webster, once fandom had entered their radar, to find the earliest possible citations for words including zine, and fandom itself. Early on, there was a view that the “best authors” (you know, like Chaucer or Shakespeare) should take precedence. After all, if Shakespeare’s use of a word truly made it part of the lexicon, does it matter that two years prior someone else used it? Add to that the tricky matter of dating the Shakespeare plays, and it becomes even more doubtful. But finding the earliest citation is not proof that you have found the coiner.

I’m going to add another thing to this, and that’s “bardolatry,” the very idea idea that “Shakespeare did it better.” Let’s make Shakespeare as incredible as possible! Sort of like the figure in a story that proves not only handsome, noble, good, and strong, but the lost prince as well! I think this is what underlies the urge some people have to attribute Shakespeare’s work to the Earl of Oxford. “His work is so noble, he must be noble too!”[4] Shakespeare is pretty great, we don’t have to have our love of Shakespeare drive us to falsely aggrandize him. But I’m sure he was great in bed too, sending his partners to orgasm as he coined new words.

But onward to gossip. Anyone who claims that Shakespeare invented the word gossip is spouting nonsense. The Online Etymology Dictionary dates gossip in the sense of “godparent” to the 1560s, which puts it in the era of Shakespeare’s life. But that’s not what gossip means today. The sense of “to talk idly about the affairs of others” gets dated to the 1620s. That would be after Shakespeare. I have other sources for etymology. The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology gives a long and splendid history for gossip, with the godparent sense noted as “probably before 1300.” That would make it a very unlikely Shakespeare coinage, as it was a couple centuries before his birth (it’s this meaning that is used in his plays). The idea of a gossip being one who engages in idle talk dates to 1566, a nicely precise date, roughly the period when Shakespeare began talking. An unlikely coinage for a two-year–0ld. The verb dates from 1627, which is eleven years after Shakespeare’s death.

Unless Shakespeare was coining words in the cradle or from beyond the grave, it seems unlikely that he can be credited with the word gossip. This should also serve as a warning to make sure that your sources are not outdated, nor should you repeat things, especially about Shakespeare, without doing a little digging to show whether or not they’re credible.

Did Shakespeare coin the word gossip? Absolutely not. Did Shakespeare add a thousand words or more to the English language? Probably not. Did Shakespeare first record many words? Maybe. But I wouldn’t go trusting lists of “words that Shakespeare invented.” Yes, there were people who were relentless coiners of new words, mostly in the eighteenth century. But Shakespeare? Probably not.

  1. Foster seems to have changed his mind about this one. A 1906 Ro dictionary gives polab as bread, but by 1913, the word for “bread” was pol, with the derived polac (biscuit), polaf (loaf of bread), polarz (rolls), and polip (pie, which really has nothing to do with bread).  ↩
  2. Not credibly at least. The whole point was Grant already knew the word and knew that viewers of Bringing Up Baby would too.  ↩
  3. I don’t remember where I read this. Sorry.  ↩
  4. That’s why there are so many sex jokes in Shakespeare. A pure expression of human nobility.  ↩

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