“At Christmas I no more desire a rose than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled shows,” Lord Berowne declares near the beginning of Love’s Labour’s Lost.
It is a sentiment that is nearly obsolete in a world where supermarket aisles burst with out-of-season fruits, nevermind flowers, and where you are always just a few clicks away from pretty much anything at anytime. But the word “new-fangled” remains current even 400 years after William Shakespeare coined it—and it is just one of the estimated 1,700 words he invented and that we still use today, including pageantry, assassination, moonbeam, zany, gossip, eyeball and, fittingly, critic. Shakespeare’s astonishing number of neologisms, the scholar Alfred Hart marveled in 1943, only goes to show “how deep and apparently inexhaustible were the wells of his memory and invention.”
Or perhaps not. According to a recent Boston Globe column, statistical analyses suggest that Shakespeare actually used a narrower vocabulary than obscure peers such as Robert Greene and George Peele. The estimated number of words Shakespeare coined has dropped from 3,200 at the time Alfred Hart was writing, and even “new-fangled” is in question—the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t give Shakespeare credit for it.
But does the estimated number of words Shakespeare invented matter? As Russ McDonald, professor of English literature at Goldsmiths, University of London, told the Globe, “Theatrical and literary history attests to his unparalleled use of the same materials as everybody else.” Mere invention is not enough to shift a paradigm; real disruption requires ingenuity in the service of a larger vision.
Ingenuity is the theme of this issue, beginning with director Julie Taymor, who is profiled on page 27 by Shakespeare scholar and Smithsonian columnist Ron Rosenbaum because of her truly innovative new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Most of the rest of the issue is devoted to those individuals working in America today who are taking the same materials everyone else has access to—tinfoil, tape recorders, musical chords, video editing software, computer chips—to create ideas and tools and artworks that are wonderfully new and truly transformative. We tapped the Smithsonian Institution’s vast expertise to help identify the recipients of our second annual American Ingenuity Awards, the best and brightest minds working in America today in a range of disciplines.
You can get another view of these creative revolutionaries on the Smithsonian Channel’s Genius in America, premiering November 21. And you can go to Smithsonian.com/ingenuity for a look at the November 19 celebration, at which each winner will receive this year’s award, which was designed by no less an innovator than the perpetually new-fangled Jeff Koons.
Michael Caruso, Editor in Chief