Friday, March 2, 2012
"Words, words, words ...."
But most of the students knew that he was, well, important, and most felt sort of proud of themselves after wading with me through The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado about Nothing, or Hamlet, the three plays I taught most frequently. There were always those who remained unconvinced, however, and their initial essays sprayed sparks of resentment, even rancor.
One student wrote one complaint (a complaint I heard quite a few times in my career): "Why did Shakespeare get to make up all those words but if we do it, we get in trouble!?"
Yes, Shakespeare did make up a lot of words--the OED credits him for the first published use of quite a few (though it's hard to know if he was just one of the first to write down a word that others were already using).
Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old
jerkin, a pair of old breeches thrice turned, a pair
of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled,
another laced, an old rusty sword ta'en out of the
town-armory, with a broken hilt, and chapeless;
with two broken points: his horse hipped with an
old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred;
besides, possessed with the glanders and like to mose
in the chine; troubled with the lampass, infected
with the fashions, full of wingdalls, sped with
spavins, rayed with yellows, past cure of the fives,
stark spoiled with the staggers, begnawn with the
bots, swayed in the back and shoulder-shotten;
near-legged before and with, a half-chequed bit
and a head-stall of sheeps leather which, being
restrained to keep him from stumbling, hath been
often burst and now repaired with knots; one girth
six time pieced and a woman's crupper of velure,
which hath two letters for her name fairly set down
in studs, and here and there pieced with packthread."
Which leads me to this: The other day, I was standing at the health club counter, about to leave, when I heard one of the attendants talking with a young man who was apparently studying criminology somewhere. She asked him, "Do you have to learn lots of forensicky stuff?"
She'd just made up a word. She knew what it meant; the guy knew what it meant; I knew what it meant. (Oh, our agile language!) Not that I think forensicky will catch on soon, but we often manufacture words for all sort of purposes and in all sorts of ways ("You are so abso-freakin-lutely wrong!").
All of which brings me back to Shakespeare and Shrew. During the big battle between Katherine and Petruchio--a battle more of words than anything else--a weary Kate looks at him and asks, "Where did you study all this goodly speech?"
And Petruchio replies: "It is extempore, from my mother-wit."
In other words: I made it up. Just as Shakespeare did. Just as the rest of us do.