Shakespeare Invented "All of a Sudden"

Most people don't realize a lot of words and phrases we use come from William Shakespeare. According to the nerds who study this sort of thing, Shakespeare created 1,700 new words compared to the 265 that Charles Dickens invented.

Some of the words ol' Bill just outright invented, others he created just by adding a prefix or suffix to an existing word. Many of them never caught on, but hundreds more still live on, and we use them today in the 21st century.

For example, Shakespeare was the first to use the word "alligator" in Romeo and Juliet when Romeo said, "And in his needy shop a tortoise hung, An alligator stuff’d, and other skins."

The phrase "In a pickle" comes from The Tempest when Trinculo says, "I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last. . ." At the time, he meant he was drunk, but now it means being in trouble in a general sense.

And in Love's Labour's Lost, Shakespeare used the words "critic," "kissing," "manager," "obscene," and "zany" when the Princess said, "Hark, I spy the the manager kissing the critic in a most obscene manner."

And King Ferdinand said, "How zany!"

My poor understanding of Shakespeare aside, I'm fascinated by the words he created and how they're still in use 400 years later. We still use "bedroom" (A Midsummer Night's Dream), "eyeball," (Henry VI, Part 1), "hurry" (Comedy of Errors), and "rant" (Hamlet).

But one of my favorites is the phrase "all of a sudden," a phrase he introduced in "The Taming of the Shrew," which he wrote in 1592. 

Actually, he said "How is it possible that love should of a sudden take such hold?"

While people started saying "of a sudden," the phrase "all of a sudden" became the preferred form around 1750.

The phrase is used as an adverb because it describes how something happened.

"All of a sudden, he woke up and shouted, 'Hell is empty, and all the devils are here!'" or "Everything was fine until she persuaded her husband to become king of Scotland all of a sudden."

Shakespeare used the new phrase in place of another adverb, "suddenly," which had been in use for 300 years. It has always meant something unexpected and surprising, as in "Suddenly, I saw a dagger before me."

There's an old joke among writers that if you're ever stuck in a story, just write, "Suddenly, a shot rang out," and it will break your writer's block.

I can tell you from personal experience this absolutely works. I've tried it, and it totally changed the tone of my business books.

But not everyone says "all of a sudden." Some people incorrectly say "all of THE sudden." 

I say incorrect, because it implies there's only one sudden that has to be shared.

"Hey, who used the sudden? When you use the sudden, could you remember to put it back where you found it? Last night, I found it in the dishwasher."

This leads to more questions, like how many suddens are there? Are you only allowed one per person? One per family? Maybe it's like the family car.

"Hey Dad, can I use the sudden Saturday night?"

"No fair! I was going to use it to go to the dance."

"She used it last week! I was going to go to the game with the guys."

"Why does he get to use the sudden? The last time he did, it smelled like cigarettes."

"Kids, if you don't quit arguing, neither of you will get to use the sudden."

See how weird that sounds? But when you say "all of A sudden," you're saying there's more than one sudden. In fact, there's a whole plethora of suddens — more than the mind can comprehend. Billions and billions of suddens.

They're like apples. You know, like when you told your mom you were hungry and you hoped she would let you have chips, but she said, "Have an apple." 

It didn't matter how many apples you ate, there were always more, building up a wall between you and the potato chips you really wanted.

Stupid apples.

That's what suddens are like. There's more than one of them. Think of "suddens" as the, uh, firetrucks in the phrase "I don't give a firetruck."

(Since this is a family newspaper, I'm going to say "firetruck," so you don't figure out what word I actually meant.)

We all say "I don't give a firetruck" because there is an unending supply of firetrucks. Unless we reach a point where we don't have any firetrucks to give. Or we ran out of firetrucks. Or we're going to be selfish and keep all of the firetrucks to ourselves.

It's the same way with suddens. When someone says "all of a sudden," you can rest assured that there are plenty more suddens to be had. They're all there for the taking. You can just pluck them right there off the tree, or pick them up off the ground.

But you have to move slowly. They don't like unexpected, surprising movements.

Photo credit: John Taylor, artist (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
Photo credit: Library of Congress (Wikipedia, Public Domain)

My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available from 4 Horsemen Publications. You can get the ebook and print versions here.