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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: October ::
Re: First Words
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0741.  Monday, 2 October 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Moray McConnachie <
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        Date:   Saturday, 30 Sep 1995 16:06:31 +0100 (BST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0719 Qs: First Words
 
(2)     From:   Donald Foster <
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        Date:   Monday, 02 Oct 1995 11:37:55 +0100
        Subj:   Re: First Words
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Moray McConnachie <
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Date:           Saturday, 30 Sep 1995 16:06:31 +0100 (BST)
Subject: 6.0719 Qs: First Words
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0719 Qs: First Words
 
I don't know if anyone has mentioned this yet, because my mailer's on the
blink, but might I suggest that an easy way to get at this kind of information
is to look at the chronological version of the O.E.D. (words arranged according
to their first appearance): there is an explosion during the years of
Shakespeare's writing which is largely due to him - or is it rather to his
central place in the knowledge of the 1st edition O.E.D. compilers? I am
replying to the list because i would promote this volume to anyone who hasn't
come across it - a fascinating linguistic cross-section of change. It is not
widely consultable, and is edited by two German gentlemen whose names I do not
recall. If there is interest, I will find out.
 
Moray McConnachie
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Donald Foster <
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Date:           Monday, 02 Oct 1995 11:37:55 +0100
Subject:        Re: First Words
 
Jeff Myers asks whether there exists "a list of words first used by
Shakespeare.  ... or a not-too-strenuous way of creating one."  If this means,
"Can we identify which English words were never uttered or written down until
Shakespeare came along?" then no such list can be constructed, either with or
without the OED.   One limitation of the OED is that it depends heavily on
Shakespeare as a source of citations.  We may take virtually any Renaissance
text, and look up all of its unusual words in the OED, only to discover that
Shakespeare supplies more citations for those words than any other author
(including some words for which Shakespeare provides the earliest instance).
For example: the OED cites Shakespeare's *WT* as its first instance of "wert"
(citing *WT*), leading A.C. Partridge to remark that "Shakespeare seems to have
been the first to use *wert*, and leading various other scholars to suppose
that the mere appearance of *wert* in a text earlier than Shakespeare's *WT*
constitutes evidence of Shakespearean authorship. But Shakespeare was not in
the business of inventing auxiliary verbs.  For earlier examples of *wert* we
need turn no further than to Sidney or Marlowe or Daniel (or to Shakespearean
texts earlier than *WT*). One should not assume that *any* Shakespeare citation
in the OED was a coinage.  If it were possible to construct such a list, we
would probably find that Shakespeare coined many words--but the list could be
surprisingly small, comprised chiefly of compound-formations.  Spenser,
Marston, Florio, and others are sometimes cited or ridiculed by their
contemporaries as the coiners of fire-new words; I do not recall any instance
in which Shakespeare was ridiculed on the same grounds.
 
Don Foster
 

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