Polonius: What do you read my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
The English language—of all the world’s languages—has the largest vocabulary. It does so because it has absorbed many languages from different cultures and tongues. Moreover, it is sufficiently flexible and expansive (and widespread) so as to continue to add new words. Each year The Oxford Unabridged Dictionary adds new words that have gained general currency.
Now, we generally know William Shakespeare (1564–1616) as the preeminent writer of the English language. If you went to a traditional high school you probably read (laboriously) Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, or Macbeth.
(For that reason, whenever my children were reading these plays in school, I always secured a film edition of the play, on the theory that as modern kids they could make more sense of the language when they could see the words attached to an action. Indeed our youngest grew so fond of Leonardo DiCaprio’s very modern gangster (but full text) version of Romeo + Juliet that he watched it over and over again.)
But what we sometimes forget is that Shakespeare was an extraordinary inventor of new words, words that entered the mainstream of our vocabulary so that we use them today as a matter of course. Here are just a few of them.
Green-Eyed (to describe jealousy)
If you go online you can track many, many, more.
He also created phrases that are equally vital to the language:
As good luck would have it
Break the ice
Come what may
Eaten me out of house and home
A laughing stock
In a pickle
And, again, many, many, more.
What I find remarkable about this is that in Shakespeare’s time, reading was not a universal skill. Far from it. So when these words and phrases were first set forth in the Globe Theatre, they were heard not read.
We sometimes take language as a given. As speakers, as writers, we all search for the right word to express ourselves. I am constantly using a thesaurus. What we sometimes fail to recognize is that a reader—a good reader—develops a vocabulary that enables them to effectively express and communicate their ideas, feelings, and beliefs. When we have the words, we can share our thoughts and feelings.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” says Juliet, but when you say “rose,” you have shared your thought.