In addition to his insights and his memorable poetry, Shakespeare is widely credited with inventing many words and phrases that can’t be found further back in the historical record. But perhaps he’s been given too much credit as an originator of words and phrases. Dr. David McInnis, a Shakespeare lecturer at the University of Melbourne, says some of this fallacy is due to the Oxford English Dictionary’s early editors being “biased” towards Shakespeare, ignoring previous uses of certain phrases. Examples of phrases originally attributed to the Bard that can be found earlier include wild-goose chase and it’s Greek to me, according to McInnis’s research.
“So, did Shakespeare really invent all those words? No, not really. He invented some; more usually he came up with the most memorable combinations or uses; and frequently we can find earlier uses that the Oxford English Dictionary simply hasn’t cited yet. Shakespeare’s talent lies in his insights into human nature, his ability to tell great tales, his creation of wonderful characters – not just in any ability he may or may not have to coin new words,” McInnis explains to the Guardian.
For his part, the OED’s spokesperson acknowledged much of this to be true, and announced its own work towards revising some of these attributions, essentially coming to the same conclusion:
These reveal a wealth of evidence unseen by the dictionary’s original editors (who from the outset accepted any kind of text, literary or not, as valid evidence)…As part of the process, we have uncovered earlier evidence for many words and phrases previously attributed to Shakespeare.
Don’t worry about Shakespeare’s legacy, though: he’s still the forefather of the entire canon in English.