Words and meanings first used by William Shakespeare


by Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless



ACADEME (noun) school: place of learning


When Shakespeare needs a synonym for school in Love's Labor's Lost, he reaches back to ancient Greek for the inspiration of academe. In the comedy's first act, King Ferdinand of Navarre and his attending lords swear to live as chaste scholars for three years. In doing so, Ferdinand predicts, "Navarre shall be the wonder of the world; / Our court shall be a little academe, / Still and contemplative in living art" (I.i.12-14).


Academe derives ultimately from Greek mythology. Along with related words like academic and academy, it can be traced to Akademeia, a public grove and gymnasium in Athens where the ancient philosopher Plato taught, named for Akademos, a Greek hero in the Trojan War.


This learned coinage must have appealed to Shakespeare, who also uses its plural form twice in the same play. For example, after the men in Love's Labor's Lost are taught a lesson about avoiding women, Berowne tells his fellow scholars that "From women's eyes this doctrine I derive: / They are the ground, the books, the academes, / From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire" (IV.iii.298-300). Modern writers in the same context would be more likely to use schools or academies, since academe now usually has the sense "the academic life, community, or world," and it is rarely pluralized.



ALLIGATOR (noun): a reptile closely related to the crocodile


In the last act of Romeo and Juliet, the servant Balthasar reports to Romeo about Juliet's supposed death. The despairing young lover plans his own suicide by securing poison from a nearby apothecary who keeps "in his needy shop a tortoise hung, / An alligator stuff'd, and other skins" (V.i.42-43).


Certainly the animal known as the alligator existed long before Shakespeare's time, but it was known in English as the lagarto or aligarto (among other variations). These names can be traced to the Spanish phrase el lagarto, "the lizard," which in turn derives from the Latin word for "lizard," lacerta. The English spelling, however, does not approximate alligator until the First Folio of Shakespeare's works in 1623; the Folio uses the spelling allegater, suggesting the same kind of change in pronunciation that sometimes turns fellow into feller.


Shakespeare makes no further reference to this animal, but that use of the r to end its name became accepted, and by 1699 alligator was established in its current spelling. The short form gator, first recorded in the nineteenth century, continues to develop new uses, serving as a nickname for natives of Florida and even as trucker slang for any long piece of retread tire lying in the road.



BLOODSTAINED (adjective): marked with blood; red with blood


Martius, a son of Titus Andronicus, is tricked into a bloody pit that contains the body of the murdered Bassianus. Horrified, Martius call to his brother Quintus to save him "From this unhallow'd and blood-stained hole" (II.iii.210).

Principally used to describe clothes or other evidence in a criminal case, this adjective no longer requires the hyphen. The word can also work figuratively, as in "a bloodstained chronicle of war." An extremely rare derivative verb was first used by Lord Byron in 1816: "Your fellows ... in a fiery mass, / Bloodstain the breach through which they pass." Another Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, is the first known user of the more familiar noun, writing in 1820, "Bind the blood-stains now / With hues which sweet nature has made divine."


Shakespeare returns to the lurid adjective in 1 Henry IV. After an intense battle, Hotspur notes a riverbank "blood-stained with these valiant combatants" (I.iii.107).



HOBNOB (verb): "to have or not have"; to mingle or associate casually


These two rhyming syllables first came together in Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night. Sir Toby Belch warns Viola, disguised as a male, that the foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek seeks a duel. "Hob, nob, is his word," Sir Toby tells her; "give't or take't" (III.iv.240).


Shakespeare uses these terms together only once. They appear to be derived from the older hab nab, a phrase with the sense of "have or not have, however it may turn out." After Shakespeare's initial use, hob and nob eventually became established in the expression "to drink hob or nob" or simply "to drink hobnob," which was used to mean "to drink alternately to each other." From such associations it's easy to see how hobnob (in various forms) came to acquire strong connotations of close friendship or intimate fellowship, as when William Makepeace Thackeray used an adjectival variation in 1859: "I might be hob-and-nob with you now in your dungeon."


By 1763, hobnob was established in use as a verb meaning "to drink together," and by the 1820s, it gained the modern sense of "to be familiar with." Nowadays the term is most often seen in a phrase like "hobnobbing with high society," denoting a form of activity which, despite the Shakespearian origins of hobnob, has nothing to do with fighting duels.



LEAPFROG (noun): a game in which one player vaults over another


Near the end of Henry V, King Henry pledges his love to Princess Katherine of France. The King alludes to his physical dexterity by saying that "If I could win a lady at leap-frog . . . I should quickly leap into a wife" (V.ii.136-39).


Although the game of leapfrog was undoubtedly familiar to Shakespeare's audience, the name itself, both parts of which date back to Old English, appears for the first time in Henry V. (The name of another leap game - leap-candle - did not appear until the nineteenth century.)


Shakespeare's noun has been widely applied beyond the children's game. It was used figuratively in a 1704 comment by the satirist Jonathan Swift: "There is a perpetual Game at leap-frog between both; and sometimes the Flesh is uppermost, and sometimes the Spirit." Leapfrog became a verb in 1872, and the poet Rudyard Kipling used it not long afterward to write about a horseman who "tried to leapfrog into the saddle." In our own time, the verb is familiar from its use in the business world ("leapfrogging the competition") and by the military ("the units were leapfrogged to their advanced position").



MOUNTAINEER (noun): one who lives in the high country; a climber of mountains


The evil Cloten draws his sword against Guiderius in Cymbeline and insultingly demands his disguised enemy to surrender: "Yield, rustic mountaineer" (IV.ii.100). Guiderius triumphs, however, and beheads Cloten "Who call'd me traitor, mountaineer" (IV.ii.120).


These two first uses of mountaineer occur about thirty lines after mountainers, an obsolete synonym, and are followed later in the same scene by the appearance of mountaineers in Line 370. Aside from these citations, Shakespeare uses the word only once in one other play, The Tempest, when the elderly Gonzalo tells of goiter in "mountaineers, / Dew-lapp'd, like bulls" (III.iii.44-45). This noun adopts the -eer ending seen in older words of French derivation, like buccaneer, cannoneer, charioteer, and musketeer. The term mountaineer provokes offense in Cymbeline, because the mountainous cave country of Wales was thought in Shakespeare's day to be inhabited by either outlaws or illiterate rustics, akin to the "hillbilly" stereotype of today.


Newer coinages ending in -eer, such as junketeer, pamphleteer, and sloganeer, often retain some of the disparaging connotations seen in Shakespeare's mountaineer, but mountaineer itself has lost such connotations. The word now conjures up images of heroic climbers risking their lives on monumental peaks as they practice mountaineering, a sport that only originated in the nineteenth century. Nowadays used as a name for everything from a popular sport-utility vehicle to a member of the West Virginia University football team, mountaineer is identified with a recreational sense of adventure and heroism.



PANDER (verb): to cater to base desires; to procure for sex


Shakespeare uses pander as a verb only once, and that use occurs in Hamlet. As Hamlet accuses his mother of complicity in his father's murder, he suggests that her motive was lust, by which "reason panders will" (III.iv.88). Although the quarto editions substitute pardons, the First Folio chooses panders.


The eponymous verb comes from Pandarus, the name of a character in Homer's epic poem the Iliad who breaks the truce between the Trojans and Greeks by wounding Menelaus, the king of Sparta. In Geoffrey Chaucer's Middle English poem Troilus and Criseyde, Pandarus appears again, but this time as a go-between for the ill-fated lovers of the title. In a play written after Hamlet, Shakespeare's own version of Chaucer's character emerges in Troilus and Cressida, where Pander shows up as a noun. First attested in 1530, the noun was clearly in use during Shakespeare's time, although it was sometimes spelled Pandar. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare's first and only use of an adjective form can be found in Ford's words: "O, you Panderly rascals" (IV.ii.117).


Robert Southey, the British poet, preferred the verb's variant spelling in his 1812 condemnation of "these traitors ... who lampooned the noblest passions of humanity in order to pandar for its lowest appetites." The -er spelling has prevailed, perhaps to conform to the many English nouns that take the same suffix, and the verb is now usually followed by to, as when the entertainment industry is accused of pandering to common tastes. The word's negative connotations are clearly reflected in its recent use to describe a breed of government officials as "pander bears."



SKIM MILK (noun): milk with its cream removed


In 1 Henry IV, Shakespeare coins the term skim milk as a figurative expression for a weak character. During that history play, Hotspur reacts angrily to the contents of a letter from somebody who refuses to support the rebellion: "I could divide myself and go to buffets, for moving such a dish of skim-milk with so honorable an action!" (II.iii.32-34)


The expression "I could divide myself and go to buffets" refers to boxing with oneself and is equivalent in meaning to the modern expression "I could kick myself!" Hotspur's use of skim-milk is the only appearance of that compound noun in Shakespeare's writing. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, however, the words form a verb phrase when a fairy recognizes Puck as one who likes to play pranks and to "skim milk... / And bootless make the breathless huswife churn" (II.i.36-37).


In modern use, skim milk is sometimes referred to as skimmed milk. Shakespeare's figurative use was extended more than a century ago, when the British humor magazine Punch played on Macbeth's "milk of human kindness" (I.v.17) and applauded a charity's "genuine outpouring of the milk and cream, and none of the skim-milk of human kindness." Today's concerns about high fat and cholesterol have done much to improve skim milk's reputation, though we suspect that Hotspur-and probably Shakespeare himself-would still somehow find it lacking.



WATCHDOG (noun): canine guard; one that protects or warns of loss, waste, or undesirable practices


In the first act of The Tempest, Prospero's magic agent, Ariel, enchants the bewildered Prince Ferdinand with this song: "Hark, hark! / Bow-wow. / The watch dogs bark!" (I.ii.381-83)


Here is Shakespeare's only use of this compound noun. He does, however, use dog and dogs almost two hundred times in his writings. The practice of combining watch (from the Old English waeccan, "to wake or watch") with another noun dates back at least to the fifteenth century, producing compounds like watchman ("guard") and watchword ("password"), both of which Shakespeare also uses.


Watchdogs real and metaphorical have proliferated since Shakespeare's time. Oliver Goldsmith wrote in 1770 of "The watch-dog's voice that bayed the whispering wind." Half a century later, Lord Byron found it "sweet to hear the watch-dog's honest bark" (an opinion not shared by trespassers). In current usage the noun, now usually written as a solid word, is equally familiar in its extended sense, typically denoting a person or group whose role is to alert the public to shady dealings of one kind or another, as seen in references to as "a watchdog committee appointed by the President" and "watchdog consumer groups." This new sense has proved to be so successful that watchdog has also become established as an occasional verb meaning "to act as a watchdog for," as in a recent article in which an unhappy customer complained that "the designer didn't watchdog the workmen for us."