Do You Know the Meaning of These Modern Words Invented by Shakespeare?

By: Ian Fortey
Image: Wiki Commons by Thomas Brooks (d 1891)

About This Quiz

Shakespeare has been credited with creating literally thousands of words in the English language, a feat that few writers could ever hope to match. A lot of those words were just nouns Shakespeare turned into verbs like "elbow," or common terms he added a new suffix or prefix to, like "uncomfortable." But hey, they hadn't been written down before that anyone knew of, so Shakespeare gets the credit for them. Such a prolific and creative writer was bound to come up with a few really cool terms, and it just so happens Shakespeare came up with more than his fair share. That's why he's still considered one of the greatest, if not the absolute greatest, writers of all time.

Now, history can get a little muddy sometimes, and some words Shakespeare didn't invent so much as he just popularized them. Considering it's a few hundred years later and we're still using all these words, that's still really impressive. How many of us can hope to have people repeating our words centuries from now? The meanings may have changed for some of the words, but since we're still using them. Why not take a look through the list we've compiled here and seen how many you recognize?

"Farewell, the tranquil mind" was uttered by Shakespeare's Othello. It was the first use of "tranquil" in English. What did it mean?

Shakespeare adapted "tranquil" from the Latin word "tranquillus," which means calm or serene. When Othello is bidding goodbye to his tranquil mind, he's saying goodbye to calm thoughts. That makes sense, since he's being tortured.

"Henry V" was the first place English readers saw the word "addiction." What was Shakespeare talking about?

Shakespeare again adapted a word from Latin to create addiction; it comes from "addictus," and he used it in "Henry V" to refer to the king's love of pleasure when he was young. Interestingly, the word has evolved over time. Nowadays, it implies a psychological component.

The word "bandit" comes to us thanks to Shakespeare. What's the meaning there?

Shakespeare used the word "banditto," which he purloined from the Italian "bandito," which itself was from the Latin "bannire." The word has an aspect of freedom to it that simply calling someone a criminal or thug doesn't have. A bandit is like a criminal on the open road.

Everyone loves a little "swagger," and it's thanks to Shakespeare inventing the word. Do you know the definition?

"Swagger" can actually be a verb or a noun, but Shakespeare gave us the verb, which means strutting about in a defiant and cocky way. It comes from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and then later in "Henry IV." Shakespeare clearly liked the swagger.

We all know Shakespeare wrote tragedies and comedies, so it seems appropriate he gave us the word "laughable." But what does it mean?

"Laugh" and "laughter" were, of course, words before Shakespeare, but he added the suffix to it to produce "laughable" in reference to something that was so silly it didn't deserve to be taken seriously. It's different than something that makes you laugh because it's funny.

You know what's a fun word? Gloomy! What does it mean, though?

When something is gloomy, it's dark and unpleasant, which is what Shakespeare meant when he referred to the "ruthless, vast, and gloomy woods." Sounds like the kind of forest you want to avoid.

If you've ever had to deal with a "mimic," you can thank Shakespeare for coining the term. Do you know what he meant?

"Mimic," which can also be used as a verb, comes from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and refers to a person who is copying you. Nowadays, when you talk about a mimic, you just mean a copycat or a double, and often it's meant in reference to someone trying to be funny by acting like you.

You know things are serious when you're dealing with an "arch-villain." What's it mean?

The word "villain" was pretty well-established by Shakespeare's time, but he added the prefix "arch" to really hit home the idea that this villain was a bad villain. It's a bit like someone today adding "mega" or "uber" or "ultra" to any old word just to make it sound more extreme.

No one wants to be around someone who's "puking," generally speaking. Do you know the current meaning?

This is one of those words that kept evolving after Shakespeare first used it. His meaning of the word was in relation to a baby spitting up and not actually the whole idea of full-on vomiting synonymous with the word "puking" today. Did he invent the word? No, but he made it popular.

If you enjoy any kind of "pageantry," you have Shakespeare to thank for it. So what does pageantry even mean?

"Pageantry" traces its roots to "Pericles, Prince of Tyre," which apparently wasn't even completely written by Shakespeare. That said, he did write the word "pageantry," and he meant it as a reference to any kind of big, colorful ceremonies.

What did Shakespeare mean when he dropped the word "launder" into one of his poems?

Shakespeare hijacked this word from French. The word "lavender" refers to washing, not the flower, and it looks like Shakespeare felt like shaking it up a bit to put it into his own work with the line "Laundering the silken figures in the brine."

Even today, we're still very much concerned with what's "fashionable." What does it mean?

Shakespeare wrote, "For time is like a fashionable host that slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand" in "Troilus and Cressida." These days, we refer to something as fashionable if it's popular and stylish and generally fairly appealing and cool.

If not for Shakespeare, it's possible no one would ever "rant" at you. What are we talking about?

"Rant" became a noun sometime later, but Shakespeare used it originally as a verb, meaning to go off and yell or rave on a bit of a tirade. These days, rant pretty much means the same thing: you rant when something gets under your skin and you go off on an angry monologue.

What do you mean when you call someone the "accused?"

Just to be clear, the word "accused" wasn't invented by Shakespeare, but he seems to be the first person to use it as a noun in terms of calling someone accused of something "the accused." He paired it with the term "accuser" in references to the person who accused "the accused."

You know why you need to be on the lookout for an "assassination," right? What's it mean?

"Assassin" was a word before Shakespeare got to it, but he coined "assassination" to turn the noun into a verb and create a really long-winded way of saying "killing." These days, we only use the word to talk about the murder of someone famous or important.

Shakespeare gave us the word "auspicious." What do you mean when you use it in a sentence?

Auspicious comes from the word "auspices" and generally refers to a good omen. Something auspicious is good and will hopefully lead to good things. Even though it sounds like "suspicious," the words have nothing in common, really.

What's the meaning of the word "academe" that Shakespeare introduced in "Love's Labour's Lost?"

"Academe" is used these days rarely, but it folds in the whole idea of places of learning. If you don't mean a specific school, you can say "academe" to refer to the whole idea of school in general. Shakespeare adapted it from Latin, as he did with many words.

If you read "Timon of Athens," you'll run across the word "castigate." Do you know the meaning?

If you're being castigated, it means someone is punishing you pretty severely. The word has a more formal quality to it these days than just "punish." It implies someone in authority really lacing into someone else for doing something wrong.

They say everyone's a critic, but Shakespeare used the word "critic" first. What's the meaning?

Shakespeare wasn't a big fan of critics, and the art world hasn't really changed much since his time. A critic is someone who judges art, whether that be film, books, video games or anything else. Often they just say mean things, which no one likes.

Do you like anchovies? Well, thank Shakespeare for that, too. But what is an "anchovy?"

Arguably one of Shakespeare's weirdest contributions, anchovy appeared in "Henry IV" in a shopping list. There's a Portuguese word that means the same thing called "anchova," but Shakespeare was the one who turned it into the pizza topping we still use today.

Shakespeare wrote, "Now is the winter of our discontent." What's "discontent" supposed to mean?

The word "discontent" existed before Shakespeare got to it, but it was a verb. The verb "discontent" means to take someone's contentment away. Shakespeare just used it as a noun that refers to the state of being dissatisfied or uneasy.

"Leapfrog" is another Shakespeare original. What's the meaning?

"Henry V" is the unlikely origin of the term "leapfrog." Shakespeare may have been referring to the battle at Agincourt, but nowadays, we just use it to refer to a game where one person crouches down so the person behind them can leap over them, kind of like a frog.

Have you ever needed to call someone "sanctimonious?" What does it mean?

People who go out of their way to look morally superior or holy can be described as sanctimonious. The word comes from Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" and has never really had any meaning other than as an insult.

What does it mean if someone is "dauntless?"

If someone is dauntless, they're bold and without fear. The term first appeared in "Henry VI." It's another one of those words Shakespeare made by taking an existing word and just slapping "less" on the end of it because no one had done that before.

What does Shakespeare mean when he drops the word "dwindle?"

This one comes from "Henry IV," and it's actually a bit obscene in the context Shakespeare uses it. Today, it has a similar but far less obscene meaning, which is to shrink or become less in some way.

No one wants to watch a "lackluster" football game. What's it mean, though?

"Lackluster" has an almost too obvious meaning. It means something is dull or literally lacking in luster. "Luster" was a common enough word in Shakespeare's day that meant something shiny and bright, so adding the prefix "lack" was just a way to make any word mean the opposite.

Shakespeare took the word jade and made it into "jaded." What's the meaning of the word?

The word "jaded" doesn't have anything to do with the color jade or the stone jade. Instead, it refers to when you're bored or sick of something because you've just experienced too much of it already.

Thanks to "Macbeth," we have the word "multitudinous." What's the gist of that word?

"Multitudinous" was a heck of a long way to refer to "a lot" or "many." In fairness, Shakespeare really liked to play with language and make some things a little more complicated than they needed to be for the sake of art.

Shakespeare referenced Egypt being "submerged." What's that about?

French and Latin both have words that basically mean the same thing as"submerged," but we can thank Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra" and the line "So half my Egypt were submerged and made" for bringing it into English.

Wouldn't it be zany if you know the definition of "zany" as a noun?

Zany as an adjective means "wacky" or "unconventional." When used as a noun as Shakespeare did, it essentially means a person with those characteristics. It comes from the name of an Italian clown, Zanni.

Are you perplexed by King John's use of the word "perplex?"

"Perplex" came from a Latin adjective "perplexus." In the play "King John," Shakespeare transforms it into a verb for the first time with the line "What canst thou say but will perplex thee more, If thou stand excommunicate and cursed?"

Shakespeare is responsible for making "gnarled" a word. What's it mean?

If something is knobby and rough, you can describe it as gnarled. Somewhere along the line, that transformed into popular '80s slang word "gnarly," which doesn't really have the same meaning at all, but slang doesn't always make sense.

Shakespeare took the word "groveling" and turned it into "grovel." What does "grovel" mean, though?

Shakespeare was a bit of a sneaky wordsmith with a lot of his creations. When he wasn't just tweaking a Latin word, he would take a word like "groveling" and just chop the end off to make "grovel," which means to kowtow, toady or crawl and beg before someone.

You hear about circumstantial evidence sometimes, but did you know Shakespeare coined "circumstantial?" What does it mean?

Circumstantial evidence is based on certain circumstances but isn't ironclad or conclusive; it's only indirect. Shakespeare just played with the word "circumstance" to make this one.

Shakespeare would never want to impede you from knowing the definition of "impede." What it is?

"Impede" comes from the word "impediment," which is something that's in your way. "Impede" was just the verb form Shakespeare invented to turn the noun into an action, which was clearly something he liked to do.

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