It’s a common claim of English classes and Internet listicles alike: William Shakespeare, English literature’s most canonical author, invented hundreds if not thousands of the words in our language. Without his plays and poems, we would not know how to swagger, grovel, or gossip, nor could we speak of our employers or our eyeballs—all, supposedly, Shakespearean coinages. From ten-dollar-words like quarrelsome and sanctimonious to everyday terms such as hint and critic, the bard is widely credited with adding immeasurably to our linguistic variety.
But a recent wave of scholarship—driven by computerized quantitative analysis and digital databases that enable searching of thousands of texts at once—is revealing that some of this may be more hype than reality. Shakespeare experts are finding that his vocabulary might not have been so different from that of other writers for the Renaissance stage. The new evidence shows that Shakespeare may have been more a product of his time than the sui generis genius of our cultural mythology—and yet, it also underscores what set him apart.