Well, How Many Words Do You Know?

This article on How Many Words Did Shakespeare Know? seems to be from 2002, but it’s making the rounds on all the bookmarking sites lately so somebody must have dug it up.  In short, Shakespeare used about 31k words and we predict he “knew but didn’t use” another 35k, for a total of 66,000ish words. What that *means*, I have no idea.  I could not for the life of me give you even an order of magnitude guess at the number of words I know.  What does it mean to know a word?  If I’ve never used the word myself, but saw it written down and could figure out what it meant, do I know it now? Did I know it before then, too?  You can’t exactly just start at the beginning and write down all the words you know.  

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8 thoughts on “Well, How Many Words Do You Know?

  1. I think it's fairly plain that Shakespeare didn't have much of a vocabulary at all, because he was always making up new words of his own when he couldn't think of an appropriate real word. Not very far above baby talk, I'm afraid.

  2. In Craig's defense, and as the father of three small children, I can attest to the fact that I've often heard "Howl, howl, howl" at about 3am.

    JM would be upset, though, that they did have a tendency to stick in extra syllables.


  3. How do we really know how many new words Shakespeare made up? Perhaps they were only the first examples we have of the words because his words survived and others did not. (Although I do not deny that Shakespeare was an inventive user of language. I am just musing.)

  4. Right catkins. It's often more strictly accurate to credit Shakespeare as a word's first recorded user, rather than its inventor. It could be that he was very attuned to popular discourse, and so picked up newly-coined words and used them in literature before other authors. Or he created the words himself out of whole cloth. We may never know…

  5. But Duane, you only hear 3 howls? They must be hiding a copy of the First Folio from you. Do you realize what that could mean!? Do a room search immediately! …And did they or did they not observe the colon?

    I think John Barton would have a "word or two" as commentary on the "extra syllables" as well. Though he might forgive the transgressions under the guise of "over-zealous pursuit of the diphthong"…or something. 🙂

  6. PS-Duane seems to have missed the segment "Poetry and Hidden Poetry" on Playing Shakespeare. But I don't think he'll be "upset" about that. His "new hero" mentions the words " syllables and single-syllables" a mere 20 or 30 times in reference to interpreting the work, as Judy Dench and others nod in reverence to his knowledge, while he directs them using those very same "singularly dismiss-able, apparently unimportant items".


  7. To side with Alexi, much of the talk about Shakespearean "coinages" comes from the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language, perhaps the first serious attempt to document the earliest attested usage of words. But that work–particularly in the first edition–was based on the tools they had and limited by the tools they didn't have. So it was fairly poor in terms of plumbing manuscripts that had not seen print, and of course there were no computers. Loads of words were traced to Shakespeare and left at that. A good, respectable provenance for an English word: first used by Shakespeare.

    Joking aside, there's no real way to say that Shakespeare invented so much as a single word; he never even boasted about it in his memoirs. And we certainly can say that he had a good ear and soaked everything around him up like a sponge.

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