“Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” — that’s how we all end up according to Shakespeare in As You Like It. But he was sans something else: a dictionary. Mind-boggling when you think about it, but true: every work Shakespeare ever penned, from Hamlet and Macbeth to A Winter’s Tale and his glorious sonnets, was written without access to a Webster’s. This bit of literary lore turned up in a fascinating book called The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester, a British writer.
As Winchester notes, 400 years ago, an English dictionary — a tool we take totally for granted — didn’t even exist. Just think about it: in one of the Golden Ages of Literature, which produced not only Shakespeare, but Walter Raleigh, John Donne, and Francis Bacon, no one could pull a reference book off a shelf and look up a word. In fact, the whole idea of looking up a word to check its roots, spelling, and meaning didn’t even exist.
At the time Shakespeare was penning his masterpieces, he could refer to atlases, prayer books, histories, works of science and art. But the only literary tools he could turn to were a spotty, unreliable thesaurus and a book on rhetoric. According to Winchester, “The English language was spoken and written, but at the time of Shakespeare it was not defined, not fixed.”
One result of this fluid state of affairs was an explosion of bizarre creations like “configuate,” “bulbulcitate,” “parentate,” “cautionate,” “attemptate” and “adminiculation.” Apparently everyone and his brother started conjuring up new words left and right. Makes you wonder what a Renaissance spelling bee would have been like! Luckily, the Bard stuck to his knitting and never tried to convince the tough crowds he played to at the Globe that Hamlet was too “cautionate” to “attemptate” to dispatch that pesky stepfather of his.