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The Chronicle of Higher Education's Career Network
9/19/2003, Vol. 50 Issue 4

My Kingdom for a Word!

By Simon Winchester

There are far too many words newly introduced in the Renaissance to be listed here, but sometimes the loveliness of the assemblages are just too beguiling to pass up. So it is pleasing to note that during the 200 years after William Caxton set up a printing press, English welcomed from abroad such words as anonymous, atmosphere, catastrophe, criterion, delirium, enthusiasm, fact, idiosyncrasy, inclemency, lunar, malignant, necessitate, parasite, pneumonia, sculptor, skeleton, soda, vicinity, and virus (all from either Latin or Greek); battery, bayonet, chocolate, confront, docility, grotesque, mustache, passport, tomato, and volunteer (from or through the good offices of the French); balcony, cupola, ditto, granite, grotto, macaroni, piazza, sonata, sonnet, stanza, and violin (from Italian); anchovy, armada, armadillo, cannibal, mulatto, Negro, sombrero, and yam (from or via either Spanish or Portuguese); and, from some 50 other contributing tongues, a gallimaufry of delights including amok, paddy, and sago (from Malay), caravan and turban (Persian), kiosk, sherbet, and yogurt (Turkish), raccoon and wampum (Algonquian), cruise, frolic, and yacht (Dutch), as well as guru from Hindi, shogun from Japanese, sheikh from Arabic, and trousers from the Gaelic.

Shakespeare--as vital a purveyor of what would go on to become Modern English as William Caxton had been two centuries before him and as were the various great English Bibles produced shortly after him--was the first to employ a great many of these words, offering to actors the chance to enrich the language of those who came to see his plays. In Othello, for example, the Moor entreats the Duke of Venice to offer his wife, Desdemona, "Due reference of place and exhibition, With such accommodation and besort as levels with her breeding," and thereby offers the first known usage (Othello was published in 1604) of the word accommodation.

Likewise, when Antonio and Bassanio's friends are chatting in the opening scene of The Merchant of Venice, Salanio gives us the first use of the word laughable: "they'll not show their teeth in way of smile Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable." Laugh itself is a word from the widely approved Old English; in 1596 Shakespeare added the Norman French suffix -able, and lo! the combination still exists happily today, four centuries later.

It has to be said that Shakespeare did advance the cause of a number of words--like besort--that never made it, or that staggered along lamely for only a short while. Among those he used, but he almost alone, were soilure, tortive, and vastidity, which mean, as one might expect, staining, twisted, and big. In these cases, and a score of others, his clever Latinate constructions fared rather less well than the simpler old synonyms from Northern Europe. But he also gives modern readers such hyphenations as baby-eyes, pell-mell, and ill-tuned, and dozens of insults that employ the word knave--of which "whore-son beetle-headed flap-ear'd knave"--from The Taming of the Shrew--has become a minor classic.

And since Shakespeare--and since William Hazlitt and Jane Austen, since Wordsworth and Thackeray, the Naipauls and the Amises, and the fantasy worlds of the hobbits and Harry Potter, and since science and sport and conquest and defeat--the language that we call Modern English has just grown and grown, almost exponentially. Words from every corner of the globalized world cascade in ceaselessly, daily topping up a language that is self-evidently living, breathing, changing, evolving like no other language ever has, nor any is ever likely to.

A glance at any map will suggest hundreds upon hundreds of constructions and imports that we now know to be more a part of today's English than they ever were of the native tongues where they were first born. Glasnost and perestroika, for example, are firmly English words now, despite their being utterly unfamiliar outside their native Russia before 1989. Anorak, from Greenland, is a word which, when introduced, described a foul-weather garment; it has since become used (though only in Britain) as a term of disapprobation, describing someone seen as rather too interested in a subject most reasonable people would think of as wholly boring. Sauna, dachshund, ombudsman, waltz, cobra, bwana, ouzo, agitprop, samovar, kraal, boondock, boomerang, colleen, manga, kava, tattoo, poncho, pecan, puma, piranha--the list of foreign borrowings introduced over the past two centuries is near endless. The 200,000 words that could be counted in the lexicon at the close of the Renaissance have in the centuries since tripled, at the very least, and the rate of expansion of the planet's most versatile and flexible vocabulary seems in no danger of slowing.

And yet, and yet. Until the very beginning of the 17th century, a time when the English language could quite probably number fully a quarter of a million words, phrases, and those individual items of vocabulary that are known as lexemes among its riches, there was not a single book in existence that attempted to list even a small fraction of them, nor was there any book that would make the slightest attempt to offer up an inventory.

No one, it turned out, had ever bothered. No one had ever thought of making a list of all the words and noting down what they seemed to mean--even though from today's perspective, from a world that seems obsessed with a need to count and codify and define and make categories for everything, there seems no rational reason why this might have been so.

That no one cared enough about the lexicon to make a list of what it held seems barely credible. It was as though the language that had been developing over the centuries had created itself invisibly, had somehow crept silently over the minds and manners of all those who spoke and read and listened to it, and never in such a demonstrative or showy way as to make any speaker or listener or reader aware that it actually was an entity, that it was something that could and should be measured, enumerated, cataloged, described. English seemed to most of its users to be somehow like the air--something that had always been there, something to be as taken for granted as the very atmosphere itself, inchoate and indefinable and thus somehow not amenable to proper measurement or systematic knowledge. It was a thing simply to be felt, breathed, and uttered, never something so base as to be studied, annotated, or counted.

To those of us who reach for a dictionary or a thesaurus at the first moment of literary puzzlement, the lack of any such book must have been an inconvenience, to say the least. And yet it was an inconvenience suffered in silence by the best of them, and for a very long time. William Shakespeare, for example, had no access to a dictionary during most of his writing career--certainly from 1580, when he began, it was a quarter of a century before any volume might appear in which he could look something up. We have already seen how frequently and flamboyantly Shakespeare contributed words to the language (dislocate, dwindle, and submerged are three more to add to those above); but to do so he had, essentially, either to find such words in other writings, note down words or expressions that he heard in conversation, or else invent or conjure words out of the thin air.

That is not to say there were no reference books available at all. In the late 16th century, bookstore tables were weighed down with all manner of missals, biographies, histories of the sciences and of art, prayer books, Bibles, romances, atlases, and accounts of exotic travel. Shakespeare would have had access to all of these, and more. He is known (from a careful statistical examination of his word usages) to have used as a crib a Thesaurus edited by the bishop of Winchester, one Thomas Cooper, and probably also a volume called The Arte of Rhetorique, by Thomas Wilson. But that is all: Neither Shakespeare nor any of the other great writing minds of the day--Francis Bacon, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Ben Jonson--had access to what all of us today would be certain that he would have wanted: the lexical convenience that went by the name that was invented in 1538, a

Simon Winchester is the author of The Professor and the Madman (HarperCollins, 1998). This essay is excerpted from The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, to be published next month by Oxford University Press.