Thursday, June 24, 2010

English: the language of new words

Elizabeth Zelvin

My husband, who has limitless intellectual curiosity, informed me the other day that Shakespeare added 1,700 new words to the English language, including “bedroom.” Googling for confirmation, I found that figure came from a Dutch techie named Joel Laumans. Other online sources put the figure at 2,000 and even 3,000. Laumans explains that many of the new words were not pure original constructs, but the result of Shakespeare’s willingness to juggle parts of speech, turning nouns and adjectives into verbs and so on.

I nearly drowned in the deep end of Google, as one can so easily do while surfing the Net, checking out this claim. The Random House Dictionary puts the first use of “bedroom” around 1580-90, while the earliest performances of Shakespeare’s plays took place in roughly 1590. My husband suggested that the use of a room dedicated to sleeping was an innovation at that time. I had no trouble believing this when he said it. I know that privacy in the bedroom is a modern concept. Royalty in Queen Elizabeth I’s time had scads of people present when they got up and dressed, and the poor shared quarters out of necessity—as indeed they still do. We take the function of our rooms for granted. But when I lived in West Africa in the 1960s, even sophisticated urban locals kept the refrigerator in the living room, where everyone could see they had one (and handy for serving cold drinks to visitors as well), though that had changed by the time I visited again in the 1980s. It was a grand theory, but my husband was wrong. The Online Etymology Dictionary, which puts “bedroom” in the 1610s, points out that it replaced the earlier “bedchamber."

Laumans’s other examples range from “addiction” to “zany.” Random House puts “addiction” at 1595-1605, right in Shakespeare’s period, though the Online Etymology Dictionary points out that the original usage referred to a “penchant” rather than “enslavement,” from the Latin addictionem, a “devotion.” “Zany” comes from the Italian dialect zanni, a second-banana buffoon in the commedia dell’arte. I didn’t find any date or attribution of its use in English to Shakespeare in the online dictionaries.

English in particular, perhaps partly thanks to Shakespeare, lends itself to the creation of new words. We have beat out the French, who codified their language in the 17th and 18th centuries and have been fighting to keep it stable ever since, as the global lingua franca for just that reason. We say “restaurant,” “boutique,” and “savoir faire.” But they say le weekend, le brunch, and le Walkman. Also le blog, googler ("to google"), and surfer sur ("to surf on") Internet.

As an old English major, I can still rejoice in Shakespeare’s linguistic exuberance. My husband googled the playwright’s language in the first place because we had just watched the movie Shakespeare in Love for the umpteenth time, enjoying the in-jokes and how brilliantly writers Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman caught the Shakespearean voice. The other reason the topic is so fascinating is that we are currently living in a period when the invention of fresh language rivals that of Elizabethan times. In my high school math class, a “googol” was merely a big number: a one with a helluva lot of zeroes after it. A “weblog,” didn’t exist, so it couldn’t be abbreviated to “blog.”

“Surf” was certainly a word. Yes, we had oceans in the 1950s, and they featured what Random House calls “the swell of the sea that breaks upon a shore” or “the mass or line of foamy water caused by the breaking of the sea upon a shore.” The noun had even been turned into a verb, “to float on the crest of a wave toward shore.” But now we channel surf and surf the Web. It’s an apt metaphor, because these days we seem to be rushing toward an unknown shore, much like that in the final image of Shakespeare in Love. It’s exciting and scary, because it seems equally likely, at least to me, that this shore could turn out to be planet-wide destruction on which our species breaks or further proliferation of technology that leads us toward a destiny in the stars.


Julia Buckley said...

What a great post! It reminds me that if I ever could get inside that proverbial time machine, I'd want to visit Shakespeare and have lunch with him (although I don't think I'd want to stay long in Elizabethan England).

And imagine what a man with his limitless creativity would do in our computer-based society. Would he embrace computers as his new medium, or would he still focus on writing plays and performing onstage? Either way, his talent with words would put him quickly on top once again.

Joel said...

So, last night I came home from watching a World Cup football match and I opened an email from my mom. She had come across your article, and was proud to see that I was mentioned. What a surprise!

This made my day, Elizabeth :)

I'm glad to see that something (that for me was totally random) has sparked up a conversation. However, it is also a bit odd.

As you said, I am indeed a techie. Unlike many of the people that have responded to my post, my knowledge of English literature does not extend far past that of a high school graduate.

Nevertheless, I am flattered and enjoyed reading your post. I still wonder who the Shakespeare, Einstein and Da Vinci's of our generation will be.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Wow, Joel, glad to hear from you. What a small world it is, thanks to the Internet. Two questions: (1) Where did you get that figure of 1,700 new words from Shakespeare? (2) Are you really Dutch, or am I just a bad detective?