Today Jamie and I went to visit Stratford-upon-Avon, a small village just north of the Cotswolds where William Shakespeare was born somewhere around 1564. You may have heard of him. Apparently he wrote some plays and poetry.
Stratford still exists and prospers, primarily because Shakespeare was born there, and apparently in order to provide sellers of souvenirs in central England with a way to separate tourists from their pounds and pence.
Although I’ve been doing it for more than 40 years, I’m the first to admit that being “creative” is an odd way to make a living.
Almost all creative people — no matter whether we’re novelists or painters or sculptors or mere advertising copywriters — are incredibly insecure about what we do. We’re all convinced that we’re frauds and that everything good we’ve created in the past was the result of pure luck and that the last good project we completed will be the final good project we ever do and we dread the moment that the phone rings and we’re given a new assignment because we absolutely know this will be the one that finally exposes the true lack of talent that lurks inside us.
Do not think I’m exaggerating. I’ve had this discussion with many creative people in many fields and 99% of them wholeheartedly agree with the previous paragraph. The remaining 1% just won’t admit it.
With that in mind, you have to believe that William Shakespeare was not your typical creative personality. It’s almost impossible to believe that he looked at himself in the mirror and said, “I’m a freakin’ fraud. Oh, sure, I may have written 37 of the greatest plays in the history of the English language and 154 sonnets that will be remembered for half a millenium, but it was luck. Pure, unadulterated luck.”
I slept through most of Shakespeare when I was in high school, but managed to pass the test because I read the Cliff Notes version of Romeo & Juliet. Luckily, I had a great English lit professor in college. Mr. Piggott’s lectures made Shakespeare come alive. He made it so interesting that I actually read and appreciated Othello.
What you may not know is that the Bard wasn’t just a master of the English language, he damn near created it. Someone with far too much time on his hands determined that in his various plays, sonnets and narrative poems, Shakespeare used 17,677 different words.
But the incredible thing is that he invented 1,700 of them. And for those who didn’t gain an appreciation for Shakespeare from Mr. Piggott, you may be surprised to learn that you’re probably still using many of them every day.
For example, here are a few of today’s common words that were first used by Shakespeare:
accommodation, aerial, amazement, apostrophe, assassination, auspicious, baseless, bloody, bump, castigate, changeful, clangor, control (noun), countless, courtship, critic, critical, dexterously, dishearten, dislocate, dwindle, eventful, exposure, fitful, frugal, generous, gloomy, gnarled, hurry, impartial, inauspicious, indistinguishable, invulnerable, lapse, laughable, lonely, majestic, misplaced. monumental, multitudinous, obscene, palmy, perusal, pious, premeditated, radiance, reliance, road, sanctimonious, seamy, sportive, submerge, suspicious
But Shakespeare didn’t stop with mere words. He also put common words together to create phrases that were completely new to the English language. Until he put pen to paper, none of the following commonly used phrases had ever before been uttered:
all that glitters isn’t gold, barefaced, be all and end all, break the ice, breathe one’s last, brevity is the soul of wit, catch a cold, clothes make the man, disgraceful conduct, dog will have his day, eat out of house and home, elbowroom, fair play, fancy free, flaming youth, foregone conclusion, frailty thy name is woman, give the devil his due, green-eyed monster, heart of gold, heartsick, hot-blooded, housekeeping, it smells to heaven, it’s Greek to me, lackluster, leapfrog, live long day, long-haired, method in his madness, mind’s eye, ministering angel, more sinned against than sinning, naked truth, neither a borrower nor a lender be, one fell swoop, pitched battle, primrose path, strange bedfellows, the course of true love never did run smooth, the lady doth protest too much, the milk of human kindness, to thine own self be true, too much of a good thing, towering passion, wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve, witching time of the night
This remarkable man, the son of unremarkable parents from an unremarkable village in central England, created and recreated an entire language. All on his own. It’s been nearly 500 years and Shakespeare’s words are as alive as ever.
Advertising copywriters like me are thrilled if we can cobble together an amusing little 60-second radio commercial that can still make people laugh the second time they hear it. It’s a lifetime achievement if one of us manages create a single “catch phrase” that becomes part of the vernacular for a week or two.
For example, my proudest achievement in advertising wasn’t even for something I created. It was for recognizing the theretofore unrecognized genius of Harry Cocciolo (Hi, Harry), a kid who applied for a job with my ad agency. I looked at his portfolio and the mystery to me was how he could still be unemployed when his genius seemed so clear. He worked for us for a year and was then hired away by one of the world’s best ad agencies. The first of many great ad campaigns he created there was “got milk”.
It ain’t Shakespeare, but it’s as close as you can come in the world of advertising.