‘Gossip,’ and other words repurposed by Shakespeare

We’ve just missed the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the 452nd anniversary of his birth, but it’s never too late to talk about the Bard. His words are the gifts that keep on gifting.

Last week, we talked about how Lewis Carroll was so fond of making up words. Shakespeare was no laggard in that department: He is credited with nearly 2,000 first uses of words. Unlike Carroll, however, Shakespeare did not create a lot of words from whole cloth. Rather, he was an early repurposer of words, using verbs as adjectives or as nouns, making nouns into verbs, or adding suffixes or prefixes. If you hate people who make verbs out of nouns now, you would’ve hated Shakespeare then.

Let’s look at some of the words he’s credited with bringing to English. Keep in mind that the dates for the plays are the experts’ best guess of when they were first performed.

  • champion The noun had existed since the early 13th century, but Shakespeare grabs first dibs on using it as a verb, in Macbeth around 1605. (“Come fate into the list. And champion me to the utterance!”) We still use “champion” as a verb, but in a different way: Back then, it meant to challenge someone to a contest. Now we mean it to fight for or defend something.
  • elbow Here’s another verbification, from King Lear, first performed in 1605: “A sovereign shame so elbows him.” The noun “elbow” lasted fine on its own for 600 years before Shakespeare got hold of it.
  • gossip Yes, Shakespeare gossiped. In two different ways. In All’s Well That Ends Well, he used “gossip” as a transitive verb (“with a world of pretty, fond, adoptious christendoms, that blinking Cupid gossips”). And in Comedy of Errors, he used it as an intransitive verb (“With all my heart, I’ll gossip at this feast”). The Oxford English Dictionary dates both of those to 1616 (as it does many Shakespeare references) and gives him credit for first usage of only the transitive verb, awarding someone else with the intransitive in 1611. Most experts believe that Comedy was first performed about 1592, but because it may not have been printed until later, Shakespeare lost out from the OED’s standpoint.
  • gloomy The OED lists the first appearance of this adjective in Titus Andronicus from 1594. (“The ruthless, vast, and gloomy woods.”) The noun “gloom” first appeared in 1596; because the verb form dates to 1400 or so, it is unclear whether Shakespeare was creating the adjective from a noun or verb. But “gloomy” also appeared toward the end of Henry VI, Part I, which was first performed two years before Titus Andronicus (“but darkness and the gloomy shade of death environ you”). No, he didn’t invent “environ” as a verb to mean encircle: That happened around 1350.
  • green-eyed Shakespeare was the first to use this adjective to mean “jealous,” in Merchant of Venice around 1600 (“shuddering fear, and green-eyed jealousy”). He went one step further and coined “green-eyed monster” in Othello, first performed around 1604, used in a caution by Iago to Othello. (“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster.”)

The Bard also gave us “cold-blooded” to mean callous and unfeeling. Or rather, Constance in King John did. (“Thou cold-blooded slave.”)

Shakespeare wrote some madcap comedies, including two that included the word “madcap,” Love’s Labour’s Lost (“Biron, the merry madcap lord) and Two Gentlemen of Verona (“Come on, you madcap”). Note that the first is an adjective and the second a noun.

Whether Shakespeare was the first to use “madcap” is a matter of some dispute. Both plays are believed to have been performed in the 1594-95 season, and some experts trace the first use of “madcap” to them. But the OED lists the first use of “madcap” as a noun in 1589 and as an adjective in 1591, neither by Shakespeare. The OED lists the Verona citation as about 1616.

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Shakespeare was never known to be frugal with words, but he was apparently the first to use “frugal” to mean economical, in The Merry Wives of Windsor. (“I was then frugal of my mirth.”)

Shakespeare spoke about seven languages, so he had a mastery of language that made others grovel before him. And yes, he invented “grovel” as well, as a back formation of the adverb “groveling.” He liked it so much that he used it twice as a verb in Henry VI, Part II, both in Act I (“If so, gaze on, and grovel on thy face” and “Mother Jourdain, be you prostrate and grovel on the earth”).

If you make it up, you can use it as you like it.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.