You May Not Know It, But You Are Quoting Shakespeare

alex atkins bookshelf shakespeareAs many scholars have noted, Shakespeare had an enormous impact on the English language. In his book, The English Language (1929), British philologist Ernest Weekley (best known for his seminal work, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English) wrote: “Of Shakespeare it may be said without fear of exaggeration that his contribution to our phraseology is ten times greater than that of any writer to any language in the history of the world.” What is astonishing is that due to the influence of his writing, people don’t even need to read Shakespeare to quote it. As Michael Macrone notes in Brush Up Your Shakespeare: An Infectious Tour Through theMost famous and Quotable Words and Phrases from the Bard, “Whether they knew it or not, people had been quoting Shakespeare piecemeal for hundreds of years. Indeed, we have derived from Shakespeare’s works an almost “infinite variety [Antony and Cleopatra] of everyday words and phrases, many of which have become so common that we think of them as “household words [Henry the Fifth].”

Of course, the question of the size of Shakespeare’s vocabulary has fascinated scholars for centuries. To answer that question, all scholars turn to The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare by Martin Spevack (1968, 1974) based on the Riverside Shakespeare (G. Blakemore Evans, 1973). The concordance lists every word used in the published work of the Bard — a grand total of 884,647 words. Spevack also machine-counted 31,654 different words in 1968 and revised that to 29,066 different words in 1974. Using those numbers, different experts use different approaches to estimate the number or words that Shakespeare knew.

According to lexicographer and Shakespeare scholar David Crystal, the entire English vocabulary in the Elizabethan period consisted of about 150,000 words. Turning to the Harvard Concordance, Crystal notes that although Spevack machine-counted 29,066 unique words, that includes variant forms of words (eg, take, takes, taking, took, taken, takest) that are counted as different words. By removing those grammatical variants, the total of different words is reduced to 17,000 to 20,000. Therefore, Crystal believes that Shakespeare had a vocabulary of about 20,000 words (13.5% of the known lexicon). Compare that to the size of the vocabulary of the average modern person (high school-level education) that is 30,000 to 40,000 words (about 6% of the 600,000 words defined in the Oxford English Dictionary). Other lexicographers estimate that Shakespeare’s vocabulary ranged from 18,000 to 25,000 words.

But alas we digress — let us return to the original discussion of quoting Shakespeare even though we may not be aware of it. I was what recently exploring the maze of bookshelves at a quaint antiquarian bookstore and came across this poster, featuring the text of British journalist Bernard Levin [1928-2004], a fan of the Bard and one of the most famous journalists in England, that eloquently and succinctly makes this argument in a single sentence containing 369 words. The essay, titled “On Quoting Shakespeare,” appears in his book Enthusiasms, published in 1983.


If you cannot understand my argument, and declare it’s Greek to me, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you claim to be more sinned against than sinning, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you recall your salad days, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you act more in sorrow than in anger; if your wish is father to the thought; if your lost property has vanished into thin air, you are quoting Shakespeare; if you have ever refused to budge an inch or suffered from green-eyed jealousy, if you have played fast and loose, if you have been tongue-tied, a tower of strength, hoodwinked or in a pickle, if you have knitted your brows, made a virtue of necessity, insisted on fair play, slept not one wink, stood on ceremony, danced attendance (on your lord and master), laughed yourself into stitches, had short shrift, cold comfort or too much of a good thing, if you have seen better days or lived in a fool’s paradise -why, be that as it may, the more fool you , for it is a foregone conclusion that you are,as good luck would have it, quoting Shakespeare; if you think it is early days and clear out bag and baggage, if you think it is high timeand that that is the long and short of it, if you believe that the game is up and that truth will out even if it involves your own flesh and blood, if you lie low till the crack of doom because you suspect foul play, if you have your teeth set on edge (at one fell swoop) without rhyme or reason, then – to give the devil his due – if the truth were known (for surely you have a tongue in your head) you are quoting Shakespeare; even if you bid me good riddance and send me packing, if you wish I was dead as a door-nail, if you think I am an eyesore, a laughing stock, the devil incarnate, a stony-hearted villain, bloody-minded or a blinking idiot, then – by Jove! O Lord! Tut tut! For goodness’ sake! What the dickens! But me no buts! – it is all one to me, for you are quoting Shakespeare.

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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