Word families

We use the term word-family to identify the set of words that contain the same basic element. For example, HEAD has 48 members - mainly compound words (e.g. heady-rash, hoary-headed), along with some prefixed and suffixed items (e.g. behead, heading) and its basic use as a noun or a verb. We list all the words in the canon (in its modern English version) that have family resemblances so that you can see which words Shakespeare used in this way, and - what is often ignored - which he did not. The groupings provide an additional tool to understand Shakespeare's lexical creativity.

The focus is on word-forms, so different senses will sometimes be brought together within a single family. This section thus presents a different perspective on vocabulary from what we see in the Thesaurus, where words are grouped on the basis of the senses they share.


Rather than present family members in a long list, we have grouped them into broad themes, which show the directions in which Shakespeare exploited this word - for instance, HEAD turns out to be far more used to express negative meanings (blockhead, idle-headed, etc) than positive ones (sleek-headed).

We hope that the thematic headings, seen with their family members, are self-explanatory, but there are two that require a comment.

  • Under INTENSITY we list any words that intensify the meaning in some way, such as (under LOVE) well-beloved and thrice loving.
  • Under NOT we include any words that express a notion of 'oppositeness', such as (under BEARD) beardless, lackbeard, and scarce-bearded.

There is always an element of subjectivity in deciding whether a word belongs to a particular theme. For example, defiler is usually a person, but in Timon of Athens it refers to gold. In such cases we followed the way the word is used in the text - so defiler is placed in the OBJECTS theme rather than the PEOPLE one. Similarly, under DAZZLE, bedazzle, although a verb, is placed in the STATE theme - because Katherina (in The Taming of the Shrew) is talking about the state of her eyes at that point. There are many cases like this, where the classification depends on how the reader interprets the text.

Despite the uncertainties, there are many clear cases where the thematic approach is illuminating. It shows, for example, that GAIT is used only with reference to slowness, not speed. It shows that in several families the NOT category is especially present, sometimes outweighing the other members of the family: see, for example, COMFORT, CONTENT, CURE, DAUNT, ORDER, PERFECT, and SANITY.

The most interesting families, in our view, are those which contain a large number of members with a varied thematic use: see, for example, BLOOD, DAY, DEAD, DOG, COLOUR, EYE, FACE, FOOT, HAND, HEAD, HEART, HIGH, HOUSE, LOVE, NIGHT, MAN. There are some unexpected words in this 'very large' category - THREE, for instance.

But also interesting are the words which have no families. To take just four examples, we might have expected to see more members under such words as ATTACK, EGG, HAT, and LAKE.

And for those who have an interest in Shakespearean trivia, this page can be used to generate all kinds of weird questions, such as: 'There were twelve pence in a shilling. Which pence amounts did Shakespeare never mention?' See PENNY for the answer.

Entry organization

Each family lists its members in the following sequence:

Basic forms come first, with their suffixes, e.g. under HATE

hate n - hate v - hated adj - hated n - hateful adj - hatefully adv - hatred n
These are coloured grey in the spider diagrams.

Themes come next, listed alphabetically; but any opposites are listed separately at the end, under NOT (coloured black in the spider diagrams).

Within a theme the members are listed alphabetically.

Some statistical data

  • There are 8463 headwords in the lists.
  • Of these, 2168 are cross-references of the type UNSHOUT see SHOUT.
  • Of the remaining 6294 headwords, 2229 have no family members, and 1274 have just two (often a noun and a verb).
  • Just over a thousand (1061) have six or more members.
  • The top ten families are MAN (97 members), LIKE in its sense of 'similar' (91), THREE, WELL in its sense of 'very' (67), HEART (66), WARD in its sense of 'direction' (52), HEAD (48), DAY (46), and HIGH and TIME (both 42).

Points to note

All lexical words in the canon have been included in Word Families. Excluded are:

  • Grammatical words (such as the, and, of) unless they have a corresponding lexical use (as with some prepositions which are also used as adverbs - without and through, for example).
  • Proper names, unless they have given rise to derived forms, such as Roman and Romish from Rome.
  • Non-English words, such as those from Latin and French.
  • Dialect forms, such as the Scottish variants in Henry V.
  • Mispronunciations, such as those used by Dr Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor or the respellings of Holofernes in Love's Labour's Lost.
  • Inflectional endings, such as plurals, comparatives, possessives, past tenses.

The Glossary shows us that many words have a wide range of meanings - the various senses of play, for example - amuse, perform, show, etc. We keep these together unless there is no etymological link (as in bear the animal and bear the action of carrying) or the senses have diverged so much that we don't think of them as belonging to the same family (as in plot referring to land and plot referring to a plan). In cases like these, we adopt the distinctions used by the Oxford English Dictionary.

We have also kept the families small. It would be perfectly possible to construct 'super-families' - bringing together all the words ending in prove, for instance (approve, improve, reprove...), but the result would be very large groupings that wouldn't be very easy to explore. So you will find approve etc shown as separate families in this list.

A word of caution

We have followed editorial practice in our source texts when dealing with hyphenated forms. Editors vary greatly in their practice, and aren't always consistent - Editor A might decide to print ill disposed, thinking of ill as separate from disposed, while Editor B opts for ill-disposed, thinking of it as a single word. Our focus has been on hyphenated forms, with just a few exceptions (such as the various numerals, where we include all instances, hyphenated or not), so it's possible that some word families have further members.


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