Moth: (Aside to Costard) They have been at a great feast of languages, / and stol'n the scraps.
Costard: O, they have liv'd long on the alms-basket of words.
—William Shakespeare, from Love's Labor's Lost
We writers and bloggers all know a little something about living “on the alms-basket of words” these days. In the quick-fire media world, where complex ideas have little time for gestation, where speed is paramount and poetry a vain and distant hope, we rely on trendy syntax and pop signifiers to communicate quickly—to signal to our audience that we’re “one of them.” It’s about being frictionless.
Because view counts. Blame the interwebs, natch.
Have we lost a little something since the days of Shakespeare? There's a way to find out, thanks to a tool invented by the Oxford Dictionaries that tells you how “Shakespearean” your writing is. It didn’t get much press when it came out. So in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s final play (scholars believe it was Henry VIII, written in 1613), I thought 2013 might be a fitting moment to test his influence today.
Language is a fluid thing. There’s no use getting too Strunk-and-White about it: The greatest writer the English language and perhaps the world has ever produced knew as much. Shakespeare was quick to invent a new word when the one he needed didn’t exist. He invented hundreds, possibly thousands.
He invented both “lovely” and “lackluster.” Whoever invented that wretchedly precious word, “fashionista,” can take pride that, 400 years ago, Shakespeare’s invented the word “fashionable.” But that's how language works. It serves the needs of its time: Really, Is inventing “ZOMG” in the internet age so different than inventing “hobnob” in the Elizabethan?
See, fashion and tech bloggers? You're just like Shakespeare!
Or perhaps not. Because for all the English language has changed in the last four centuries, Shakespeare’s influence looms large, as evidenced by just a few of the words cited above. His turns of phrase and idiom are still abundant and commonplace, from “green-eyed monster” to “hot-blooded.” His ghost, like Hamlet’s father, walks among us, a kind of linguistic atavism that whispers in our ears, influences our daily speech.
How much? The Oxford tool provides some fun clues. “We took the freely available text from our 1916 edition of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and processed it with a script that extracted all the unique words used in the plays,” the editors explain. Users are invited to insert a bit of text into a box, which is then compared, word-for-word, with the list of unique words, and generates a percentage.
Follow the link above and test some of your own writing. My first paragraph is, apparently, 74 percent Shakespearean—higher than I expected even though I knew all along I would test it later. “Feel free to start comparing yourself to a summer's day,” it tells me. Well, thank you, I will.
The tool gives me a chance, also, to test one of my longstanding theories: That David Milch’s characters in the television show, Deadwood, speak something close to Shakespearean English if you take out all the “cocksuckers.”
Here are results of a few choice phrases from the inimitable Al Swearengen (Swear Engine… get it?):
"Dan, don’t you agree that truth, if only a pinch, must season every falsehood, or else the palate fucking rebels?”— 90 percent
"How does Hearst hope to defeat me? Allied as I am with the imbecile, the contemptible, and the promiscuous fucking insane." —81 percent
"Now, I'm halfway thinking this exaggerates the condition rather than alleviates it. If I might should query the Doc, but then that cocksucker will only ask after gleets. … The entire area of my fucking asshole is now one gigantic fucking throb. I have no idea what's transpiring in there." —68 percent
I don’t know if that proves my theory. But that dialogue is “a dish fit for the gods” as far as I’m concerned.