400 Years Ago, Shakespeare Gave Us Practical Business Terms We Still Use Today
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language and the world’s pre-eminent dramatist.
While most of us know Shakespeare for his extensive repertoire of plays like Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo and Juliet, few are aware of the profound impact he had on the evolution of modern English.
One scholar has identified as many as 15,000 different words that Shakespeare used in his plays, several of which he invented himself by combining existing words and borrowing words from foreign languages.
In fact, Shakespeare added hundreds of new words to the English language, including many commonly used words and colorful expressions that we still use today.
While many of these words may have already been in use in daily speech at the time he was writing his plays, the Oxford English Dictionary credits 2,000 of them to Shakespeare.
Scanning a list I found of words that were first used by Shakespeare, I was struck by how utterly familiar they sounded. These are words that we still use today — and frequently. Even if you’ve never read a play by Shakespeare, or watched a movie or TV adaptation of one, you probably use many of the words that are credited to him.
I was also struck by the number of words that are used as part of today’s business vocabulary. Here are eight words Shakespeare gave the business world, along with a passage from one of his plays where it first appeared:
Businesses may be looking for more leaders these days, but they still rely on managers to get things done. Who would have thought that a word we use dozens of a times a week came from Shakespeare? Yet you can find it in two of his plays, including Love’s Labour’s Lost and Midsummer’s Night Dream:
Come now; what masques, what dances shall we have,
To wear away this long age of three hours
Between our after-supper and bed-time?
Where is our usual manager of mirth?
What revels are in hand? Is there no play,
To ease the anguish of a torturing hour?
Whether you’re a one-person stay-at-home freelancer, or a sprawling multinational with hundreds of thousands of employees, everything we do in business is about making our product or service as marketable as it can be. Shakespeare knew this four centuries ago when he dropped the word into his play, As You Like It:
Celia. By my troth, thou sayest true; for since the little wit that
fools have was silenced, the little foolery that wise men have
makes a great show. Here comes Monsieur Le Beau.
Enter LE BEAU
Rosalind. With his mouth full of news.
Celia. Which he will put on us as pigeons feed their young.
Rosalind. Then shall we be news-cramm’d.
Celia. All the better; we shall be the more marketable.
In business, we negotiate everything: Prices, delivery times, sales targets, compensation, severance packages. In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare uses the word “negotiate” to describe what you should do to avoid falling for someone just because of their good looks:
Friendship is constant in all other things
Save in the office and affairs of love:
Therefore, all hearts in love use their own tongues;
Let every eye negotiate for itself
And trust no agent; for beauty is a witch
Against whose charms faith melteth into blood.
Entrepreneurs say they want to “leapfrog” the competition. Okay, so maybe it sounds cliché already, but that’s probably because the word has been in use for more than 400 years, since Shakespeare first used it in a scene in Henry V in which the King attempts to woo the beautiful princess Katherine to become his wife:
If I could win a lady at
leap-frog, or by vaulting into my saddle with my
armour on my back, under the correction of bragging be it spoken. I should quickly leap into a wife.
Business is about creating — and destroying — jobs. It’s about employment of people, whether they work full-time or part-time, whether they’re outsourced or insourced. Here’s a character in Shakespeare’s play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, making a pitch for a bunch of men who are trying to make up for past wrongs and find a decent job:
These banish’d men that I have kept withal
Are men endued with worthy qualities:
Forgive them what they have committed here
And let them be recall’d from their exile:
They are reformed, civil, full of good
And fit for great employment, worthy lord.
How could businesses get off the ground — or grow — without investments? Shakespeare probably wasn’t thinking of Silicon Valley or unicorns when he used the word, but “investments” does make an appearance in two of his plays, Henry IV and Hamlet.
In both instances, “investments” refers to clothing, and it’s used metaphorically in a scene in Hamlet when Polonius warns his daughter Ophelia about the prince:
In few, Ophelia,
Do not believe his vows; for they are brokers,
Not of that dye which their investments show,
But mere implorators of unholy suits,
Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds,
The better to beguile.
If you want to get serious traction in business, you need to outsell your competition. Okay, so maybe Shakespeare didn’t have customer acquisition metrics in mind, but he did use the word “outsell” to describe a beautiful woman in his play, Cymbaline:
I love and hate her: for she’s fair and royal,
And that she hath all courtly parts more exquisite
Than lady, ladies, woman; from every one
The best she hath, and she, of all compounded,
Outsells them all; I love her therefore
Companies that receive an offer from a potential acquirer like to argue they are being undervalued. Employees often complain how their talents and skills are undervalued by their company. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare uses the word to describe the beauty of Portia, the heroine of the play:
In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues: sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages:
Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued.
Are you as surprised as I am that these words first appeared in Shakespeare’s plays? Share your thoughts in the comments.