Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 5 June 2004

A Lexicographer writes

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On The South Bank Show in January 2000 a contributor said excitedly, ‘Shakespeare invented a quarter of our language.’ Rubbish. I found that reference, and its refutation, in a new book by the indefatigable Professor David Crystal, The Stories of English (Allen Lane, £25). First, he asks, how big is an Englishman’s vocabulary? Dr Crystal says he has lost count of the times he has been told that the Sun uses a vocabulary of 500 words. His reckons an average issue contains 6,000 different words (or ‘lexemes’, i.e., words stripped of bolt-on features).

Academics, by inviting respondents to look through a slice of dictionary, say that an average English speaker uses 50,000 words actively and understands a quarter more. Shakespeare uses just over 29,000. That doesn’t give Shakespeare ‘learning difficulties’, for we have only a small sample of his writing, and since his day English vocabulary has swollen to well above 400,000 words.

The Oxford English Dictionary cites him as the earliest user of 2,035. And here I see Dr Crystal sliding like Joseph into a pit. He says, ‘If a lexeme really was in common use when Shakespeare was writing, we would expect to find it used at around the same time by the other authors sampled in the OED.’

Perhaps so. But the 2,035 words are not all the common ones, and we have a limited sample of his contemporaries’ writings. Yet Dr Crystal makes a league table comparing Shakespeare with Nashe or Sidney — and the OED is an insufficient instrument for such a comparison. The dictionary’s quotation-hounds were volunteers of varying skill. The dictionary-making dragged on for decades; a mouse made a nest in quotations gathered for the letter S. When quotations were sought to illustrate some words, the cupboard was bare. James Murray or his continuators sometimes grubbed up a quotation to fit. Shakespeare was concordanced, so an easy choice; his standing also made it less likely that his quotations would be dumped for lack of space.

It is futile to claim that a word such as acutely or accommodation was ‘first used’, let alone ‘invented’, by Shakespeare, as folk do. It is like saying Cardinal Wolsey invented strawberries and cream, as I heard on the wireless last week. The glorious OED does not sink billions into finding ever earlier citations, though volunteers send them in, like rare moths. Still, I don’t disagree with Dr Crystal half as much as I agree with him.