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Many phrases credited to Shakespeare are not coined by him, claims academic


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Melbourne: An Australian expert on Shakespeare claims the bard did not invent many of the words and phrases attributed to him, saying the anomaly is due to the Oxford English Dictionary "bias" towards "famous" literary examples.

Noting examples such as "it was Greek to me" and "wild goose chase", David McInnis from Melbourne University, said online searches of old texts had helped to uncover pre-Shakespeare uses for many words and phrases that are frequently credited to him.

"Did Shakespeare really invent all these words and phrases?" he wrote in an article for the university's online magazine.

A file image of celebrations to mark the 400th death anniversary of Shakespeare in the city of his birth, Stratford-Upon-Avon in  Britain. Reuters

A file image of celebrations to mark the 400th death anniversary of Shakespeare in the city of his birth, Stratford-Upon-Avon in Britain. Reuters

"The short answer is no. His audiences had to understand at least the gist of what he meant, so his words were mostly in circulation already or were logical combinations of pre- existing concepts."

McInnis, a lecturer in Shakespeare studies, said the Oxford English Dictionary contains more than 33,000 quotations from Shakespeare, including about 1,500 listed as the first evidence of a word's existence. A further 7,500 are listed as the first evidence of a particular usage or meaning.

"But the Oxford English Dictionary is biased," he was quoted as saying by The Telegraph.

"Especially in the early days, it preferred literary examples, and famous ones at that. The Complete Works of Shakespeare was frequently raided for early examples of word use, even though words or phrases might have been used earlier, by less famous or less literary people."

According to McInnis, the phrase "it's Greek to me" is often thought to derive from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which is believed to have been written in 1599.

But internet-based resources have helped to uncover at least one earlier use.

"Now, thanks to digital resources like Early English Books Online, we can search for the phrase 'Greek to me' and easily find examples that predate Shakespeare," McInnis said.

"Fellow playwright Robert Greene's The Scottish History of James the Fourth was printed in 1598 but possibly written as early as 1590. In it, a lord asks a lady if she'll love him, and she replies ambiguously: "I cannot hate."

He presses the point ...at which point she pretends not to understand him at all: "Tis Greek to me, my Lord" is her final reply."

Likewise, the phrase "wild goose chase" has been shown to pre-date Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: it apparently appears at least six times in a 1593 book about horsemanship by the English  poet Gervase Markham.

However, McInnis noted that Shakespeare sometimes appears to have refashioned existing phrases - such as "the better part of valour is discretion" - to make them "concise and catchy".

And, in other cases, such as "to make an ass of oneself", Shakespeare "seems to have genuinely invented [it]", McInnis wrote.

"So did Shakespeare really invent all those words?" he asked.

"No, not really. He invented some; more usually he came up with the most memorable combinations or uses, and frequently we can find earlier uses that the Oxford English Dictionary simply hasn’t cited yet," he added.

First Published On : Sep 6, 2016 17:55 IST

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