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The game is up: Shakespeare's language not as original as dictionaries think | Books | The Guardian

Shakespeare did not coin phrases such as its Greek to me and a wild goose chase, according to an Australian academic.

In an article for the University of Melbourne, Dr David McInnis, a Shakespeare lecturer at the institution, accuses the Oxford English Dictionary of bias over its citation of Shakespeare as the originator of hundreds of words in English. The OED, which saw its original volumes published between 1884 and 1928, includes more than 33,000 Shakespeare quotations, according to McInnis, with around 1,500 of those the first evidence of a words existence in English, and around 7,500 the first evidence of a particular usage of meaning.

But the OED is biased: especially in the early days, it preferred literary examples, and famous ones at that, writes McInnis. The Complete Works of Shakespeare was frequently raided for early examples of word use, even though words or phrases might have been used earlier, by less famous or less literary people.

His audiences had to understand at least the gist of what he meant, so his words were mostly in circulation already

Shakespeare himself, according to McInnis, didnt really invent all the words and phrases which are attributed to him. His audiences had to understand at least the gist of what he meant, so his words were mostly in circulation already or were logical combinations of pre-existing concepts.

The phrase its Greek to me, for example, referring to unintelligible speech, is used in Julius Caesar, when Casca says of Cicero that: Those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but, for mine own part, it was Greek to me. The play, which McInnis dates to 1599, is the earliest example of the phrase given in the OED, but the academic points out that searching for it in the digital resource Early English Books Online throws up its usage in Robert Greenes The Scottish History of James the Fourth, printed in 1598 but possibly written in 1590. In it, a lord asks a lady if shell love him, and she replies ambiguously: I cannot hate. wriest McInnis. He presses the point and asks if shell wed him, at which point she pretends not to understand him at all: Tis Greek to me, my Lord is her final reply.

Wild goose chase Romeo and Juliet. Photograph: Johan Persson

Romeo and Juliet, meanwhile, is cited by the OED as the earliest example of the phrase wild goose chase, in 1595. Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five. Was I with you there for the goose? Mercutio says to Romeo.

But McInnis points to the 1593 use of the phrase in the English poet Gervase Markhams book about horsemanship. In this context it is clear that at some point, people understood the wild goose chase to be a complicated type of horse riding challenge or competition another kind of difficult quest or task, he writes.

McInnis does note that Shakespeares words are sometimes both memorable and original, as in the case of the phrase to make an ass of oneself, which the playwright seems to have genuinely invented.

In A Midsummer Nights Dream, Bottom the weaver is magically turned into an ass. Other characters remark upon Bottoms transformation, but he thinks theyre just mocking him: This is to make an ass of me, to fright me, if they could, writes the academic.

This is to make an ass of me Bottom transformed in A Midsummer Nights Dream. Photograph: Robert Workman Photographer

So, did Shakespeare really invent all those words? No, not really. He invented some; more usually he came up with the most memorable combinations or uses; and frequently we can find earlier uses that the Oxford English Dictionary simply hasnt cited yet. Shakespeares talent lies in his insights into human nature, his ability to tell great tales, his creation of wonderful characters not just in any ability he may or may not have to coin new words.

Shakespeare's talent lies in his insights into human nature and ability to tell great tales not just coining new words

A spokesperson for the OED said it had an ongoing full-scale revision programme currently under way, which is seeing every word in the dictionary reviewed to improve the accuracy of definitions, derivations, pronunciations, and the historical quotations A significant part of the work is new research, drawing on a vast array of resources and digital archives. These reveal a wealth of evidence unseen by the dictionarys original editors (who from the outset accepted any kind of text, literary or not, as valid evidence), said the spokesperson. As part of the process, we have uncovered earlier evidence for many words and phrases previously attributed to Shakespeare.

In 2011, the OEDs then-chief editor John Simpson highlighted a decline in the number of items for which Shakespeare had previously been credited as the first quotation, and in April, in a piece on the OUP blog, the academic linguist Edwin Battistella suggested that something like half of the items formerly believed to be Shakespeare coinages are now shown in the OED as having been used earlier, said the spokesperson.

However, many entries have not yet been updated. The OED team is always pleased to receive evidence which reveals usage earlier than previously recorded.

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