Surfing William's Wide Word Web

In the development of the English language over more than 1,500 years, some names stand out as very important. For example, the writer Geoffrey Chaucer and the printer William Caxton influenced the development of Middle English. One great name stands above all others in the emergence of Modern English.

 William Shakespeare (1564–1616) is regarded as the greatest of all writers. He wrote 41 plays which have, in total, about 1,200 characters in them. The leading characters range from King Henry V and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, to the great magician Prospero. Other magical characters include the three witches in Macbeth and the fairy queen Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream. And everyone knows the story, or has seen a film, about the tragic teenage lovers Romeo and Juliet.

He also wrote poems, including 154 sonnets. 126 of them were in praise of a handsome young man; the others were dedicated to a mysterious "dark lady". All this writing was achieved during a short period between the late 1580's and 1612. Join me now as we explore just a little of the great man's Wide Word Web.

Well known phrases

Many familiar sayings come from Shakespeare's plays. Here are a few examples in their original form, from just two plays, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet:

A countenance more in sorrow than in anger.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be.

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

Murder most foul.

Brevity is the soul of wit.

Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.

To be or not to be: that is the question.

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

’Tis now the very witching time of night.

I must be cruel only to be kind.

A pair of star-crossed lovers.

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

Parting is such sweet sorrow.

A plague o’ both your houses!

Is it true that brevity is the soul of wit?

What is the present-day form of "Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t"?

What are the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune"? Have you been attacked by any of them in your life? Come to think of it, "fortune" means "luck — is there such a thing as luck?

"The lady doth protest too much". What on Earth does this mean? Why would someone protest "too much"?

What might happen at "the very witching time of night"? Would you like to be there to witness it?

"Parting is such sweet sorrow" contains an oxymoron. An oxymoron is not a stupid cow. What is it, and can you come up with some more examples?

An amazing vocabulary

Shakespeare used a vocabulary of about 20,000 words. That figure classifies such groups as go, gone, going as one word. If you add the derivatives and also compound words, his vocabulary grows to about 30,000 words.

Shakespeare’s written vocabulary, 400 years ago, was only a little lower than that of an average 21st century person.

How many words would you expect to find in the vocabulary of a 21st century university lecturer?

One of the fascinating things about the great man’s vocabulary is the way he used some words only once in all his works. This is evidence of how well informed he was. It also makes you wonder how large his vocabulary would have been if he had written, say,  twice as many plays.

Here are some examples of words he used only once:


As You Like It, Act 3, Scene 2:

O most gentle pulpiter! What tedious homily of love have you wearied your parishioners withal, and never cried ‘Have patience, good people.’

What is a homily? What is the name of the art of presenting a homily, which must be studied first?


Merry Wives of Windsor Act 3, Scene 2:

I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of. What do you call your knight’s name, sirrah?

How come Shakespeare used the name of another great writer, Charles Dickens, several centuries before he was born?

rhinoceros was not a new word, as the fearsome creatures had been written about since 1300, but Shakespeare mentions them once.

Macbeth, Act 3, Scene 4:

What man dare, I dare.

Approach thou like the rugged Russian bear,

The arm’d rhinoceros, or the Hyrcan tiger;

Take any shape but that, and my firm nerves

Shall never tremble.

tawdry  Gaudy, showy, and of poor quality. From tawdry lace, a shortened form of Seynt Audries (Saint Audrey’s) lace, neckties and ribbons which were sold at fairs in celebration of St Audrey. 

The Winter’s Tale, Act 4, Scene 4:

I have done. Come, you promis’d me a tawdry-lace, and a pair of sweet gloves.

salad was used once by Shakespeare as a metaphor, but not to describe vegetables.

Antony and Cleopatra, Act 1, Scene 5:

My salad days,

When I was green in judgment, cold in blood

sock had been in the English language since the early 1300’s, but Shakespeare used the word only once in a sharp but humorous speech:

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 3, Scene 5

Ramm’d me in with foul shirts and smocks, socks, foul stockings, greasy napkins, that, Master Brook, there was the rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril.

potatoes were unknown in Europe until about 1565. They were thus very rare items during Shakespeare’s lifetime. He mentions them twice in his plays:

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act 5, Scene 5:

Let the sky rain potatoes; let it thunder to the tune of  Greensleeves, hail kissing-comfits, and snow eringoes; let there come a tempest of provocation, I will shelter me here.

Troilus and Cressida, Act 5, Scene 2:

How the devil luxury, with his fat rump and potato finger, tickles these together! Fry, lechery, fry!

What is an eringo? Would you eat it?

What is a comfit? Would you kiss one?

tomato is not mentioned by Shakespeare. The word was not used in English until just before his death. Before then, the fruit was called Apple of Love.

A curiosity

The longest word used by Shakespeare is:


If you don’t believe me, you can check. It appears early in Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act 5, Scene 1.

Signs of the times

We regard knives, forks and spoons as everyday utensils. Many people just could not manage without them. Shakespeare’s plays give some indication of how eating habits have changed:

knives are mentioned about 70 times. However, most of these refer to the knife as a dagger or weapon.

spoons are mentioned only five times.

forks are mentioned three times, as the tip of an arrow and tongue of a snake, but not as eating tools.

Have forks always been ordinary everyday eating utensils?

dinner is mentioned over 75 times.

breakfast appears 16 times.

lunch is never mentioned. The word was not used until about 1829 — that’s a mere 173 years ago.

Where did "lunch" come from? What was the midday meal called in earlier times?

Animals, real and imagined

Many animals are mentioned in his plays and poems. Here is a list of some of them, and the approximate number of times the words appear. From this list and the numbers, you can get a fair idea of how people lived and what they knew or believed.

horse 320

dog  200

lion 100

cat 50

wolf  50

ape  35

tiger 25

dragon  17

monkey  13

whale  10 

camel  8

leopard, pard  8

elephant   7

moon-calf  4

basilisk  3

griffin  2

leviathan  2 

rhinoceros  1 (So now you know where I found the title for this section!)

hippopotamus  nil


What is a leviathan, and which famous book mentions them several times? For some of you, this is a book that you are very familiar with. For others, it will fairly irrelevant.

In one of Shakespeare’s plays, who was derisively called a moon-calf? Clue: the action took place on a remote, magical island.

The Bard’s amazing vocabulary

Here are some more words used only once, or just a couple of times, by Shakespeare. It is possible that he coined them or introduced them into the English vocabulary. The line numbers given are approximate, and might vary in your edition of the plays.

accommodate, accommodation

King Lear, Act IV, Scene 6, line 100

But who comes here?

The safer sense will ne’er accommodate

His master thus.

Othello, Act I, Scene 3, line 265

I crave fit disposition for my wife,

Due reference of place and exhibition,

With such accommodation and besort

As levels with her breeding.

"Disposition" looks like quite a modern word, relatively speaking. How many times do you think Shakespeare used it?

assassination once

Macbeth, Act I, Scene 7, line 1

If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well

It were done quickly. If the assassination

Could trammel up the consequence, and catch,

With his surcease, success;

How many times do you think Shakespeare used the verb "assassinate"?

Of other words from the above extract, Shakespeare used:

trammel once.

surcease four times, but he used success about 50 times.

barefaced once

Macbeth, Act III, Scene 1, line 138

So is he mine, and in such bloody distance

That every minute of his being thrusts

Against my near’st of life; and though I could

With barefaced power sweep him from my sight

And bid my will avouch it, yet I must not,

For certain friends that are both his and mine,

Shakespeare used avouch about 15 times.


King Lear, Act IV, Scene 2, line 80

Thou changed and self-cover’d thing, for shame!

Bemonster not thy feature! Were’t my fitness

To let these hands obey my blood,

They are apt enough to dislocate and tear

Thy flesh and bones. Howe’er thou art a fiend,

A woman’s shape doth shield thee.


As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7, line 200

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion;

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans every thing.

Shank above, meant leg or lower leg, and was used four times. We still hear it occasionally in a colloquial phrase... but which one?

What is "sans", and where does it come from? How many times do you think the Bard used it?

Which three singing children are referred to in "childish treble"?

laugh, laughter are used about 150 times, but Shakespeare probably coined:

laughable and used it once

The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Scene 1, line 60

And other of such vinegar aspect

That they’ll not show their teeth in way of smile

Though Nestor swear the jest be laughable


Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene 5, line 130

O, I would thou didst,

So half my Egypt were submerg’d and made

A cistern for scal’d snakes! Go, get thee hence.

Hadst thou Narcissus in thy face, to me

Thou wouldst appear most ugly. He is married?


above, and Othello, Act IV, Scene 2, line 175

The fountain from the which my current runs,

Or else dries up; to be discarded thence!

Or keep it as a cistern for foul toads

To knot and gender in! Turn thy complexion there,

Patience, thou young and rose-lipp’d cherubin,

Ay, there, look grim as hell!

complexion above, about 40 times.

pribbles, prabbles, and others

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act V, Scene 5, line 180

EVANS. And given to fornications, and to taverns, and sack, and wine, and metheglins, and to drinkings, and swearings, and starings, pribbles and prabbles?

FALSTAFF. Well, I am your theme; you have the start of me; I am dejected; I am not able to answer the Welsh flannel; ignorance itself is a plummet o’er me; use me as you will.

FORD. Marry, sir, we’ll bring you to Windsor, to one Master Brook, that you have cozen’d of money, to whom you should have been a pander. Over and above that you have suffer’d, I think to repay that money will be a biting affliction.

PAGE. Yet be cheerful, knight; thou shalt eat a posset tonight at my house, where I will desire thee to laugh at my wife, that now laughs at thee. Tell her Master Slender hath married her daughter.

pribble once.

prabble four times, but...

prattle and related words, 11 times.

cozened  means "cheated".

Which member of your family might cheat you?

pander (noun) meant someone who procured clients for a prostitute. The verb came later, meaning to cater for someone’s needs or whims.


Posset can mean a quantity of milk regurgitated by a baby. If you "eat a posset" at someone’s house, will it make you sick?


William Shakespeare is remarkable not only for his stories and verse, but also for his vocabulary. His plays are a remarkable mine of interest, research and inspiration for anyone who wishes to delve into the heritage and riches of the English language. Happy digging!

First published in TalentEd journal for teachers of gifted and talented students.

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