Pre-Shakespearean Ear-Usury

A lot is made, by people who make a lot of things, about the number of words and phrases that were invented by Shakespeare. This is, of course, another great sign of his genius – aside from his writing a few decent plays, that is. If you look up “coined by Shakespeare” on Google, you’ll find all kinds of lists, like, for instance, this one.

Regular readers might suspect Obooki’s likely opinion on these Shakespearean neologisms, and indeed you would be right. I’d hazard, in fact, that probably about 90% of the words and phrases (or, perhaps we should say “common expressions”, since I’m not talking direct quotations from the plays here, only “ways with words”) attributed to Shakespeare weren’t his invention, but were things he took from the world around him. Whether he was the first to write them down – well, maybe; – certainly, since Shakespeare dominates the English language within a 200 year radius of himself, it’s like he’s going to end up the culprit of a lot of such linguistic misdemeanours.

And so we have the phrase, “lend me your ears”. Was there not, before Shakespeare, any trade in ears? – Well, it turns out there was – and I suspect there was good business to be had too. This is from somewhere between 1467 and 1540 (at the worst, then, 20 years before Shakespeare’s birth), from the Pre-Reformation Banns of the Chester Cycle (to be found in Penguin’s collection of English Mystery Plays):

I pray you all that be present
That you will here with good intent,
And lett your eares to be lent
Hertffull, I you pray.

This, as the players come on at the beginning of the production, and try to gain everyone’s attention. Which makes me suspect, the phrase was not so much a Shakespearean coinage, as an example of his usage of cliché.

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3 thoughts on “Pre-Shakespearean Ear-Usury

  1. Oddly enough, just before reading your article I came across this in Low and Price’s ‘The Two Juggs, Or The Large Chest’ (1575-1577?), which concerns a pair of identical twins and the hilarious complications over which of them has the right to a legacy.

    Toby, or not Toby, that is the question
    Whether ’tis the knobblier one of them,
    Or the one without arms…

    I rest your case.

  2. Ha, and they say on Wikipedia that the Toby mug (apparently invented in c.1760) was named after a character in Shakespeare. You see how easily everything gets attributed to him.

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