Abaddon Books

Word Nerd: Comedy, Tragedy, History, Cat-Pictures

4 years ago

Hey yo!

So with Monstrous Little Voices coming out next Tuesday, I thought I’d cover some popular euphemisms for the toilet that have come and gone over thehahayeah obviously you know what’s coming.

Let’s do some Shakespeare.

The 1700

So if you ask your typical denizen of our nation’s streets for one random fact about Shakespeare, odds are they’ll say he added a buttload of new words to the English language.* If they’re particularly on form, they’ll even be able specify “more than 1700 words.”

Put them on the spot to actually name one of these, though, and they may come up with assassin,‡ or maybe zany. Or they’ll just shrug, like surely no-one expects you to know which words, right? Which is kind of a shame, because like there’s seventeen-goddamn-hundred of them, and surely it’s worth knowing some, if only for pub trivia conversations.

So while I was looking for a Shakespeare-themed column for Word Nerd, I sort of started thinking along these lines. Let’s cover some of his words!

Then I thought: let’s cover some of his internet words. Because you may not know it, but without Shakespeare’s contributions to the language four hundred years ago, some of the concepts defining the most transformative communications system the world has ever seen might have very different names.

The Bard of the Bandwidth

What do you mean, Dave?

Well, how about these bad boys?


thou mayst not coldly set our sovereign process, which imports at full, by letters congruing to that effect, the present death of Hamlet. – Hamlet, Act IV, sc iii.

Perhaps more of a back-end concern, but importing and exporting files and data are a big part of the web. This is a good time to point out that Shakespeare didn’t exactly “invent” most of his new words, so much as move them around parts of speech. When you hear people complaining about people using nouns as verbs or adjectives as nouns, point out that Shakes did this all the fucking time,** and we pretty much worship him for it.

Anyway, import already existed as a noun, meaning “significance” (hence important); Shakespeare turned it into a verb, meaning “to tell.” Interestingly, the more recent sense of “to bring in” is actually the word’s original Latin route; Shakespeare’s sense appears to have come via a Middle French distortion.


Now is it manhood, wisdom and defence, to give the enemy way, and to secure us by what we can, which can no more but fly. – Henry VI, Part 2, Act V, sc ii.

It’s very important to secure your website, password and computer in this day and age. Again, Shakespeare really only gave us the verb, although the adjective was very new in his time. The noun was imported (ha) from the Latin for “without care.”


I spy entertainment in her; she discourses, she carves, she gives the leer of invitationMerry Wives of Windsor, Act I, sc iii.

How would we know to ignore people’s invitations to play Candy Crush if we didn’t know what to call them? The verb invite wandered into English from Middle French (originally from Latin, “a challenge”) a few decades earlier. Shakespeare turned it into the noun.


Call you that backing of your friends? A plague upon such backing! – Henry IV, Part 1, Act II, sc iv.

And the whole phenomenon of crowdfunding was born! So the noun back obviously existed since ancient times, but in this one line Shakespeare invented both the verb and the gerund at one fell swoop.¶ In the passage he’s playing on the idea of turning your back and being at someone’s back.


All blest secrets, all you unpublish’d virtues of the earth, spring with my tears! – King Lear, Act IV, sc iv.

This one made me giggle. So I’m being cheeky here, because he really just meant “hidden” (publish, in a time when the printing press was still fairly new, and commissioning editors shockingly underrepresented in the workforce, meant “to reveal”). In more recent times the term has broadly meant “not yet published,” but the web has co-opted this to refer to something that has been published, and then unpublished again, something that was previously impossible for everyone except Gilbert Norrell.§

Anyway, Willy added the un-.


Nay, an thou'lt mouth, I'll rant as well as thou. – Hamlet, Act V, sc i.

Where would the internet be without ranting, I ask you? The term seems to come from the Dutch ranten, “to rave or ramble,” but whether Shakespeare brought it in himself, or it was kicking around at the time and he was just the first to write it down, we can’t be sure.


When vice makes mercy, mercy's so extended, that for the fault's love is th' offender friended. – Measure for Measure, Act IV, sc ii.

Okay, confession time: this was the word that made me decide to write this column. Isn’t it great?

So it’s worth also pointing out that not all of Shakespeare’s contributions to the English language made it. In particular his contractions: he loved to trim, combine and compress words, in part to fit his meter (what, you thought you can just knock out every line in iambic pentameter just like that?) and in part to create pithier, more urgent language, and some of his efforts – such as impair (as an adjective), needly, relume – were perhaps a little too ambitious and never caught on.

The verb friend, lopping the be- from the more usual befriend, was one of these sad souls; at least until Mark Zuckerberg found a way to attach a hard numerical value to our likeability and brought this little oddity back.

As always, if you want to argue with me, or to chat about this shit, or to propose a topic for a future blog, let me know! Tweet us; Facebook us; let’s have an argument/chat.


*Okay, if you ask an absolutely typical denizen, they’d probably say “he wrote plays or something.” Let’s say an average nerd.†

†Okay, I just canvassed the office and got “He left his wife his second-best bed,” “He lived over a brothel,” “He didn’t write any of his own plays,” “He probably died of cancer,” and “He couldn’t look up.” So let’s just say – look, fuck off, alright? This is my column.

‡He didn’t. Assassin entered English from French shortly before Shakespeare was born; what he did was coin the verb to assassinate. I told you this’d be good! Huh? Huh?

**It should be noted that he gave us marketable (As You Like It, Act I, sc ii.), and in doing so arguably spent almost all of the good will he earned from everything else he did in his life ever.


§Although a few organisations along the jackboot-and-flaming-pyre lines have made a spirited attempt.