What was Shakespeare saying? New dictionary reveals legendary playwright’s ‘verbal treasure trove’

LANCASTER, United Kingdom — William Shakespeare may have lived centuries ago, but his storytelling still resonates today. Classics like “Macbeth,” “Hamlet,” and “Othello” continue to inspire and captivate modern readers. However, Shakespeare’s style of writing and choice of words is understandably dated and somewhat difficult for many readers to grasp nowadays. Even scholars who have dedicated their professional lives to Shakespeare’s work struggle to pin down exactly what the prolific writer was trying to say with his words. Luckily, researchers at Lancaster University have released a new dictionary of Shakespeare’s language, described as a “verbal treasure trove” of the nuances and uses of Shakespeare’s words.

“This is the first fully corpus-based dictionary of Shakespeare’s language and most comprehensive since Alexander Schmidt’s in the early 1870s,” says Jonathan Culpeper, a Professor of English Language and Linguistics at Lancaster University, who worked with Lancaster’s Dr. Andrew Hardie and Dr. Jane Demmen, on these volumes, in a media release.

For example, while dotage is usually used as a word to describe old age, Shakespeare often used it to note someone’s reduced mental capacity (like being blindly in love). Successes, meanwhile, weren’t so much wins to Shakespeare as they were outcomes – characters may talk of a bad success. The word bastard is considered derogatory now, but Shakespeare used it to refer to a flower that was genetically hybrid.

When most of us hear the word dinner, we think of sitting down for a meal late in the afternoon or evening, but Shakespeare preferred using that word for what we might think of as lunch (although, confusingly, his contemporaries used it to refer to an evening meal just like us). Also, the term beef back then was strongly associated with the English, especially the lower ranks, and thought to lower intelligence.

Interestingly, fish was considered both inferior to red meat and “decidedly dodgy” due to an association with Catholicism or sex.

Statue of William Shakespeare
Statue of William Shakespeare (Photo by Taha on Unsplash)

All of these insights and more can be found in The Arden Encyclopedia of Shakespeare’s Language, a unique five-volume reference work that details and illuminates Shakespeare’s rich language. The first two volumes (together constituting a dictionary) were released following 25 years of preparation, a $1.2 million Arts and Humanities Research Council grant, and seven years of hard work among a team of up to 25 researchers.

A key aspect of this project was the decision to utilize corpus linguistics, which is a computer-aided analysis of massive language datasets, as a method of providing new evidence-based accounts of Shakespeare’s language.

This project wasn’t limited to just Shakespeare’s words either, the volumes of the Encyclopedia will also reveal the linguistic thumbprints of plays and characters, touch on and articulate themes like love and death, and highlight networks of character interactions.

Volumes one and two are made up of 20,000 word entries gained from a million-word corpus of Shakespeare’s plays and compared against a matching million-word corpus of contemporary plays, and that’s not even mentioning an additional huge corpus of 320 million words of various writings from the time period.

“So why the comparisons?” Prof. Culpeper asks. “Other dictionaries define Shakespeare by looking just at Shakespeare. The result is a bit circular – Shakespeare’s words had lives amongst his contemporaries, and we pay attention to that, along with what they are doing in Shakespeare’s plays.”

For instance, while many would probably guess that the word wicked appears densely in religious texts of the time, few would say the same of the highly frequent word ourselves. The dictionary details how words including alas or ah were used heavily by Shakespeare for female characters, usually while performing the emotional work of lamentation in his plays.

“Frequent words,” Prof Culpeper explains, “often excluded from previous Shakespearean dictionaries, have a wood for the trees problem.”

Moreover, the dictionary also details the infrequent, flagging words that are seen once in Shakespeare’s works. Examples include bone-ache (syphilis) or ear-kissing (whispering, although other writers used it to refer to flattering). Shakespeare is also credited with coining a number of words commonly used today, such as self-harming.

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John Anderer

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