Thursday, March 31, 2005

Shakespeare and Words

from Bill Bryson's The Mother Tongue

"A man of Shakespeare's linguistic versatility must have possessed thousands of words he never used because he didn't like or require them. Not once in his plays can you find the words Bible, Trinity, or Holy Ghost, and yet that is not to suggest he was not familiar with them."

1 comment:

Joe said...

Seems like there should be some more meat to this one, doesn't there? I can imagine being impressed with his mastery if he never used the word 'love' in Romeo and Juliet or never used the letter 'e'. Not using the words 'Holy Ghost' seems significantly less impressive. His higher-than-expected use of the word 'pigeon' is, actually, useful, as is the fact that he never used the word 'dramatic'.

Having said all this, Bryson was trying to say that you can't make assumptions of the human vocabulary (How big is the English language?) based on collecting (really, counting) words in the contemporary literature, especially of a particular author.

Also from Bryson:

'Many other words owe their existence to mishearings. Buttonhole was once buttonhold. Sweetheart was originally sweetard, as in dullard and dotard.'


'This tendency to turn foreign sounds into native speech is common. In New York, Flatbush was originally Vlacht Bos and Gramercy Park was originally De Kromme Zee.'