The modern day dictionary of Shakespearean words

The modern day dictionary of Shakespearean words: £400 encyclopedia reveals The Bard’s most weird and wonderful terms – so do YOU know your ‘bone-ache’ from your ‘ear-kissing’?

  • £400 book should help readers better understand the Bard’s words and phrases 
  • READ MORE Oxford academic suggests skipping Shakespeare’s boring bits

If you can’t tell ‘ear-kissing’ from a ‘bone-ache’ while reading the works of William Shakespeare, a new dictionary may finally help you out. 

‘The Arden Encyclopedia of Shakespeare’s Language’, published today by Bloomsbury, compiles over 20,000 words and phrases used by the Bard in his plays in the 16th and 17th centuries. 

The fascinating two-volume, 900-page compendium shines a light on all the weird and wonderful words of the English language that have long since fallen out of use. 

But it also includes the words that are still in use today that have a dramatically different meaning – such as ‘dotage’, ‘nag’ and ‘adamant’. 

It should make Shakespeare’s works a lot easier to understand, but at a whopping £400 for two volumes it doesn’t come cheap. 

The new dictionary published today by Bloomsbury compiles the words used by William Shakespeare in his works as well as their meanings

From ‘bone-ache’ to ‘ear-kissing’: Shakespearean words and their meanings

Dotage – blindly in love

Bone-ache – syphilis

Ear-kissing – whispering

Successes – outcomes (e.g. ‘bad success’)

Punk – prostitute  

Adamant – impenetrably hard stone

Prosecute – to pursue

Dinner – lunch

Geck – fool 

The project was conceived and led by Jonathan Culpeper, a professor of English language and linguistics at Lancaster University.

Described as a ‘verbal treasure trove’ of the nuances and uses of Shakespeare’s words, its publication comes after seven years of work and a £1 million Arts and Humanities Research Council grant.

Putting the dictionary together involved ‘corpus linguistics’, the computer-aided analysis of massive datasets of language. 

‘One of the distinctive features of the dictionary is its comprehensiveness,’ Professor Culpeper told MailOnline.

‘We don’t just look at the “hard” words – we look at all the words in Shakespeare’s plays.’ 

The mammoth dictionary – which is intended for use by the general public and not just academics – could make reading Shakespeare a more illuminating experience. 

It may be especially helpful for schoolchildren who have to pore over the Bard’s plays for hours as part of the national curriculum. 

While there’s no doubt the man was a linguistic genius, so much of his prose can be hard to understand today because the meanings of words have changed. 

The Arden Encyclopedia of Shakespeare’s Language has been published today by Bloomsbury – but it’ll set you back £400

READ MORE Expert says those who want to enjoy Shakespeare should skip the ‘boring’ beginnings 

Emma Smith, professor of Shakespeare studies at the University of Oxford, said readers should instead start with a famous speech (file photo)

For example, Shakespeare used the word ‘dotage’ to refer to reduced mental ability or an infatuation (like being blindly in love) rather than as a quaint term for old age. 

The term ‘bone ache’ was used by Shakespeare to refer to syphilis, while ‘ear-kissing’ meant whispering or spreading rumours. 

Amazingly, ‘successes’ more generally referred to outcomes whether or not they were positive or negative – so in Shakespeare one could talk of a ‘bad success’. 

‘Adamant’ referred to ‘impenetrably hard stone’ – and it wasn’t until the 1930s the word had evolved into its current meaning (refusing to be persuaded). 

‘Dinner’ was preferred by Shakespeare for what we might think of as lunch (although the Bard’s contemporaries did use it to refer to an evening meal like we do now). 

Other intriguing entries in the dictionary include ‘clock’ which meant to make a noise like a hen (although it also referred to a timepiece just like today). 

‘Leer’, meanwhile, meant to glance sideways or look slyly, but without the sexual connotations that its has now. 

‘Flirt’ meant ‘to sneer at’, ‘prosecute’ meant to pursue and ‘punk’ and ‘nag’ were both used as an insult given to a promiscuous woman or a prostitute. 

The English playwright, poet, and actor William Shakespeare, portrayed here in an illustration taken from Meyers Lexicon, is widely believed to have been the greatest dramatist of all time

READ MORE Shakespeare ‘could help medical students connect with patients’ 

A palliative care doctor thinks medical students could benefit from reading Shakespeare (file photo)

There’s also other words that have fallen out of use entirely in the past 400 years that many therefore don’t know the meaning of (e.g. ‘prithee’ meaning please and ‘malapert’ meaning disrespectful).

Professor Culpeper told MailOnline: ‘I rather liked “clack-dish”, a dish carried by a beggar with a lid that could be used to make a noise (clacking) that would draw attention.

‘Or there’s the phrase “p**s of the nettle”, meaning to be in a bad mood.’ 

The dictionary also includes words that seem to have their earliest occurrence in Shakespeare (including ‘dwindle’ and the decidedly modern sounding ‘self-harming’). 

According to Professor Culpeper, this is the first fully corpus-based dictionary of Shakespeare’s language and most comprehensive since a work by German writer Alexander Schmidt in the early 1870s. 

Corpus linguistics uses computers to analyse large-scale collections of texts (corpora) in order to address questions about meaning, structure and more. 

Unlike this new work, ‘frequent words’ that are used a lot by Shakespeare – such as ‘alas’ or ‘ah’, used heavily used by female characters – have often been excluded from previous Shakespearean dictionaries. 

And what makes this new effort even more comprehensive is it puts Shakespeare’s words in the context of other writers at the time.

Every word is compared with a 321 million word corpus comprising the work of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, such as Christopher Marlowe and John Webster. 

‘Other dictionaries define Shakespeare by looking just at Shakespeare,’ Professor Culpeper said. 

‘The result is a bit circular – Shakespeare’s words had lives amongst his contemporaries, and we pay attention to that, along with what they are doing in Shakespeare’s plays.’

The team are also working on three more volumes that will be published over the next three years – adding up to a total of five volumes. 

Volume 3 will describe the ‘linguistic thumbprints’ that characterise every play and every character within them, Professor Culpeper said, while volume 4 will visually plot interactions between characters.

Meanwhile, volume 5 will describe the language that ‘constructs the themes’ in Shakespeare, such as love, death and power. 

While £400 for two volumes is a hefty sum, it’s mainly intended for purchase by libraries that can make it accessible to multiple people – although any member of the public can buy if they have the money. 

William Shakespeare: The playwright, poet and actor whose reputation transcends all other writers

William Shakespeare (baptised April 26, 1564 – died April 23, 1616) was an English playwright, poet, and actor who is widely believed to have been the greatest dramatist of all time.

The playwright continues to occupy a position unique in world literature as someone whose reputation transcends that of all other popular writers.

He is credited with producing 39 plays, 154 sonnets and three long poems.

His plays, the most famous of which include Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and Othello, have been translated into every major language.

They are performed thousands of times a year by actors all across the world and are studied by millions of students across the UK and elsewhere.

William Shakespeare (baptised April 26, 1564 – died April 23, 1616) was an English playwright, poet, and actor who is widely believed to have been the greatest dramatist of all time

Shakespeare was born and raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire.

He married Anne Hathaway at the age of 18 and had three children with her: Susanna and twins Hamnet and Judith.

At some point between 1585 and 1592, Shakespeare began a career in London as an actor and writer.

He was the part owner of a playing company called the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, who later became known as the King’s Men.

They built the Globe Theatre, in Southwark, South London, at which they performed many of Shakespeare’s plays. 

The theatre was destroyed by fire in 1613 but rebuilt the following year before being closed in 1642 and then pulled down.

A modern reconstruction of the Globe, named ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’, was built less than 800 feet from the site of the original theatre and opened in 1997. 

At the age of 49, Shakespeare is believed to have retired back to Stratford, before he died three years later.

However, there are scant records of his private life and considerable speculation continues about his exact physical appearance. 

Some questions have also been raised about whether all the works attributed to him were in fact written by others.    

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