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New Words in Hamlet?

It is often said that Shakespeare’s use of language in Hamlet is particularly rich and innovative. A frequently quoted remark is that, in writing Hamlet, Shakespeare introduced ‘over six hundred’ new words into the English language. Internet sources, particularly, tend to repeat this information. However, while Shakespeare did employ a wide vocabulary in the writing of Hamlet, the figure of ‘over six hundred’ refers to words that, according to Alfred Hart (1943), Shakespeare had not previously used in any of his plays. Hart called these ‘fresh’ words. [1]  His research involved putting the plays into chronological order, [2] and counting the words, then arriving at the number of fresh words used in any given play. That meant that, in Shakespeare’s first play, all of the words were fresh, since he had not used them before. This is not the same thing as words that are new to the English language. Both G. R. Hibbard and Stephen Greenblatt correctly state that Shakespeare employed over 600 words that were new to him in Hamlet, Hibbard citing Hart’s work directly. [3] These sources have sometimes been misunderstood, and the mistake has arisen.

What Hart did say was that a hundred and seventy words in Hamlet were new to the English language. [4] He cites the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED, in his articles, and this is one possible source for his information. However, determining when words were first used in Elizabethan English is no easy matter. There are no audio recordings that would allow us to listen to speech, and thus our understanding is confined to what we read in texts. We can never be certain that what we think is the first appearance of a word in our literature is really the very first; all we can say is that no earlier use has yet been discovered. In addition, we do not know how long a word or expression may have been used in the spoken language, before being written down. So we cannot be sure, even if a trusted source like the OED cites Hamlet as the first instance of a word being used, that it had never been written or spoken before.

Also, we must think about what counts as a ‘word’. Are ‘believe’, ‘believed’, ‘believing’, ‘believer’ and ‘belief’ all different words, or forms of the same word? And what about the part of speech a word belongs to? ‘Cool’ may be a verb or an adjective, and may be used literally, or metaphorically, as in ‘Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper/ Sprinkle cool patience’ (Ham. 3.4.119-20). [5] The OED records first instances of different forms and meanings of words. Some of these are archaic, so even if Shakespeare uses a word we recognise, he may be using it in an unfamiliar way. Hamlet contains many words that we use today that were then used as different parts of speech, or with other meanings, such as ‘emulate’ (used as an adjective, 1.1.82) and ‘unimproved’ (according to the OED, meaning ‘not reproved’, and according to the Arden Shakespeare, meaning ‘untried’, 1.1.95). [6] Issues like these mean that every scholar may arrive at a different conclusion when deciding which words and usages appeared for the first time in any given work of literature. [7]

The online edition of the OED gives a number of words that make their first appearance in the English language in Hamlet. [8] These include such colourful words as ‘avouch’ (1.1.56), ‘blastments’ (1.3.41), ‘fanged’ (3.4.201), ‘gibber’ (1.1.115) and  ‘strewments’ (5.1.222), as well as the more ordinary ‘defeated’ (1.2.10), ‘reword’ (3.4.142), ‘survivor’ (1.2.90),  and ‘unpolluted’ (5.1.228). Shakespeare uses ‘cudgel’ in I Hen. IV with the literal meaning ‘to beat with a cudgel’, but in Hamlet it has the figurative meaning of racking one’s brain: ‘cudgel thy brains no more about it’ (5.1.52). Expressions include ‘Gods bodkin’, (2.2.467), an oath meaning ‘God’s dear body!’, and the melodramatic ‘Unhand me, gentlemen’ (1.4.84).

Many critics agree that Hamlet is notable for linguistic inventiveness and variety. According to Auden, in Hamlet Shakespeare was ‘developing a more flexible verse’, but also using prose innovatively: Hamlet speaks verse in passionate scenes and soliloquies, and prose conversationally. [9] For Frank Kermode, the language of Hamlet is characterised by ‘limitless variation’. [10] Paired words and expressions, Kermode finds, are particularly characteristic of Hamlet. They can be oppositional, as ‘spirit of health, or goblin damned’ (1.4.40), or express similar ideas, as in ‘whips and scorns of time’ (3.1.69), ‘dead waste and middle of the night’ (1.2.197), or ‘the trappings and the suits of woe’ (1.2.86). [11] Also notable are oxymorons, like ‘crafty madness’ (3.1.8) and ‘defeated joy’ (1.2.10), as well as repetition of adjectives, and indeed of sounds, as in ‘bloody, bawdy villain,/ Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain’ (2.2.515-16). [12]  We can see why, for Alfred Hart, ‘Hamlet is the supreme example of Shakespeare’s delight in and command of fresh and forceful words’. [13]

Karen Kay


1. Alfred Hart, ‘The Growth of Shakespeare’s Vocabulary’, Review of English Studies, 19, no. 75 (July 1943), pp. 242-54 (p. 249). Hart counted 606 ‘fresh’ words in Hamlet, of which 396 were not used in any of Shakespeare’s other plays. Return to text

2. Hart faced some difficulty here, because the dates when the plays were written are frequently disputed. Cf. Hart, ‘Growth’, p. 246. Return to text

3. Cf. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by G. R. Hibbard, The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987), p. 30, and Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (London: Cape, 2004), pp. 307-8. Return to text

4. Alfred Hart, ‘Vocabularies of Shakespeare’s Plays’, Review of English Studies, 19, no. 74 (April 1943), pp. 128-40 (p. 135). Return to text

5. All quotations follow the spellings and the act, scene and line numbers of William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, The Arden Shakespeare, 3rd Series (London: Thomson Learning, 2006). These are often different from the quotations as cited in the online OED. Return to text

6. Cf. Hamlet, p. 157, n. 95. Return to text

7. Cf. Hart, ‘Vocabularies’, pp. 129-30, for an explanation of his word-counting methods. For example, he writes, ‘I counted as one word a noun used adjectivally, an adjective used as a noun or an adverb, an adverb used as a preposition, or a preposition used as a conjunction or adverb. [...] In general, I did not count inflected forms of a verb, e.g., present participle, past participle or gerund, as distinct from the parent verb. If a participle had acquired a specialized sense or represented a substantive with the addition of –ed or –ing, it was reckoned as a distinct word’ (p. 129). Also cf. N. F. Blake, Shakespeare’s Language: An Introduction (London: Macmillan, 1983), pp. 41-2, for a discussion of lexical innovation in Hamlet and contemporary literature. Return to text

8. For those who have access to the OED online, a list of 121 entries was found using Advanced search, and entering Shakes. in the  first cited author field and Ham. in the quotation work field. However, this search may yield instances, as with ‘crimeful’ and ‘defeat’, where Shakespeare uses the word first in another play. Searches with Shakes. in first cited author and Ham. in first cited work, or with Shakes. in quotation author and Ham. in first cited work, yield only 96 entries. However, the word ‘cool’ in an adjectival, figurative sense, ‘cool patience’, whose first instance is given as Hamlet, appears in none of these search results, so all may be incomplete. The search facility appears to be sensitive to the exact forms of the author and title, which are frequently abbreviated, so entering Shakespeare and Hamlet will not bring up a full list. Return to text

9. W. H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare, ed. by Arthur Kirsch (London: Faber, 2000), p. 160. Return to text

10. Frank Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language (New York: Farrar, 2000), p. 97. Return to text

11. Kermode, pp. 104-15. Return to text

12. Kermode, pp. 103, 114-5. Return to text

13. Hart, ‘Growth’, p. 254. Return to text



General Background
Antony and Cleopatra
King Lear
A Brief Overview Of British Social And Political History
The Politics of the Catholic Church
The Influence of Montaigne on Shakespeare
International Relations and Politics
James VI and I and his Patronage of the Arts
Kingship in the Renaissance
Early Modern Attitudes to Madness
Political Theatre
Elizabethan and Jacobean Revenge Tragedy
The Religious Reformation, 1529-1559
The Influence Of Machiavelli On Shakespeare
The Succession of James I
Suicide in the Renaissance
Textual Variations in Shakespeare’s Plays
The Tragic Hero
The Transition from Medieval to Renaissance Drama
The Battle of Actium
Sources for Antony and Cleopatra
Marc Antony
The Contrast Between the Renaissance Prince Hamlet and Old Hamlet
New Words in Hamlet?
Is Hamlet a Problem Play?
Sources for Hamlet
Concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory in Hamlet
‘And My Poor Fool Is Hanged’
The Double Role Of Cordelia And The Fool In King Lear
The Enclosure Acts
The Theme of Nature in King Lear
Nature and Cosmic Order in King Lear
Sources for King Lear
The Publishing and Performance History of Othello
Race in Othello
Sources for Othello
The Wife as Property in Othello