picture of William Shakespeare

Happy Birthday, Will!

On April 23, 2017, we celebrate the 453rd anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. The playwright’s massive influence on the English language is well documented; Shakespeare may have invented over 1600 new words. Even if the Bard didn’t “invent” them, he was probably the first English-language writer to use them. Classical Latin and Greek as well as modern languages including French, Italian, and Spanish all inspired Shakespeare’s wordplay.

In the United States, Shakespeare’s plays have provided popular entertainment since the 1700s, and many idiomatic phrases coined by Shakespeare continue to be mis-used by Americans today. As language evolves, the wrong meanings eventually become the right meanings, because these are the ones that we all understand.

One good example of a Shakespearean phrase whose meaning has changed comes from The Merchant of Venice. The merchant Shylock asks whether his customers should expect him to speak “with bated breath and whisp’ring humbleness.” “Bate” comes from “abate,” (from Old French “abatre,” to beat down) which means to diminish. The character is asking if he should speak in a hushed tone to show respect.

Nowadays we don’t “speak” with bated breath – we “wait” with bated breath. What’s more, lots of us wait with “baited” breath. I suppose we are hoping the bait on our breath will attract the thing we want, like the cat who eats cheese then waits by the mouse-hole. Critics like to haughtily point out that it’s “bated” not “baited,” but they almost always forget that the term was originally meant to describe speaking, not waiting. Now that the phrase is only used to describe “waiting,” the assumption must be that when you “wait with bated breath” the thing you desire is about to happen and you’re excitedly holding your breath (on the other hand, when someone tells you “don’t hold your breath” you know it’s going to be a long wait).

Another example comes from Macbeth – the character Macduff receives the news that his whole family was murdered, and he cries out “Did you say all? O hell-kite! All? What, all my pretty chickens and their dam, at one fell swoop?” A kite is a bird of prey, so the metaphor is of a falcon attacking defenseless chickens.

Fell is an archaic word meaning terrible or evil – from it comes the word “felony” or crime. However, because our modern meaning of “fell” is of downward motion, “one fell swoop” has come to mean sudden and all at once, but not necessarily evil. When you read Macbeth in translation, you see it used either way. One French translation captures the meaning of evil: “tous enlevés d’un seul horrible coup?”; while an Italian translation uses “una sola presa” or one single catch. Beyond the meaning, the phrase itself has changed. Using the Corpus of Historical American English, swivel-chair linguist Stan Carey shows how the original “at one fell swoop” has gradually been replaced by “in one fell swoop.

While Shakespeare might not recognize his words as we use them today, I doubt he would disapprove. His enthusiastic wordplay came from combining different words (“moonbeam,” “lackluster”), adding prefixes and suffixes (“besmirch,” “premeditated”), adapting words from other languages (“rant,” from Dutch “ranten,” meaning to “talk foolishly, rave”), or transforming verbs into adjectives (“gloomy”). If we want to get creative and start “baiting” our breath, I am sure Shakespeare would enjoy our ingenuity, even if (especially if!) it seems a little silly.