Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Coining Words on the Elizabethan and Jacobean Stage

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Coining Words on the Elizabethan and Jacobean Stage

Article excerpt

The Theater is your Poets Royal-Exchange, upon which, their Muses (ye are now turnd to Merchants) meeting, barter away that light commodity of words ... your Groundling, and Gallery Commoner buyes his sport by the penny, and, like a Hagler, is glad to utter it againe by retailing.

--Thomas Dekker, "How a Gallant should behave himselfe in a Play-house" (1609) (1)


What follows is a Shakespeare professor's predictable fantasy: that the great Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights secretly aspired to be English teachers, and that understanding their obscure locutions could be the key to wealth, status, stylishness, and personal magnetism. Once upon a time--in the days before the word "glamour" had split off from the word "grammar"--that may have been true.

My topic is the way the rapidly evolving English language was sold at theaters around 1600--a topic that unites a philological approach with what is commonly supposed its opposite, namely, an emphasis on dramas social functions and material conditions. The paradox is that this practice, although it demands a materialist reading because it is fundamentally economic, involves the buying and selling of a commodity that is--as Dekker wryly observes--almost completely immaterial. My instance is neologism, for which English was ripe, not only because print and trade were accelerating exchange with other languages, but also because the disappearance of grammatical inflections within English allowed words to be easily converted from one part of speech to another. (2) In fact, "the period 1500-1659 saw the introduction of between 10,000 and 25,000 new words into the language, with the practice of neologizing culminating in the Elizabethan period." (3) My thesis is that dramatists were fighting for market-share in a theatrical economy that was partly a store of new words and a lecture-demonstration of new ways of assembling them. In another article, I will be exploring how Shakespeare prevailed in this competition, not only by systematically providing instant glossaries, but also by finding other ways to make the verbal innovations both memorable and--notably in the case of Othello--thematically crucial. (4)

That Elizabethan audiences sometimes recorded choice lines in commonplace books is well established; (5) I am suggesting that those audiences similarly gathered individual words, though that did not usually require a written record. They could then (as my epigraph puts it) "utter" the neologisms again--a verb that meant "to sell" and "to circulate as legal coinage," (6) as well as "to speak"; having bought words from playwrights, audiences would hope to "retail" them profitably elsewhere. If Elizabethan theater was a "knowledge marketplace," (7) the lexicon itself was a featured product. The basic rules of marketing applied: convince paying customers that your product can turn them into suave, sexy, and successful people, whereas competing products would sicken or humiliate them. Demand must have been strong, because playwrights spent much less time demonstrating the product's successes than warning against the failures of rival versions; presumably they (like modern advertisers) could count on audiences to identify hopefully with the victors rather than with the fiascos. Or perhaps this negative emphasis reflects the ambivalent function of Elizabethan theater as an instrument for renegotiating status and hierarchy: while advertising the rhetorical means of social advancement, the plays also persistently implied that such uprisings were likely to fall flat. The same ambivalence is legible through Shakespeare's long reign as a worldwide cultural idol, proffered as a means of self-improvement for the working classes, but also wielded as a legitimator of traditional class distinctions. Listening to the mighty lines of Marlovian heroes, groundlings must have wondered whether they too would seem heroic, or instead simply ridiculous, if they mimicked Tamburlaine's "high astounding tearms" (8)

In fact, several rival playwrights specifically condemn the diction of Marlowe's Tamburlaine and those who imitate it, suggesting that drama should instead imitate ordinary intelligent speech. …

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