Accommodate. Dwindle. Suspicious. Obscene. We owe these and a few dozen other words to William Shakespeare, who coined some, twisted others into new shapes, heard still others in the mouths of bricklayers, milkmaids, merchants and shepherds in the English countryside. Moreover, Shakespeare mastered whole technical vocabularies, drawing on the language of sailing, of falconry, of hunting, of painting.
The corpus of Shakespeare’s work, quantified, contains 31,534 individual words—or, as the helpful authors of the textbook Statistical Reasoning for Everyday Life put it, “a grand total of 884,647 words counting repetitions.” But that doesn’t seem a great deal, given that the English of our time contains, arguably (and scholars do argue about the matter, endlessly), a million words, great numbers of which are coinages in neoscientific Latin (by way of example, look up ibuprofen sometime).
Yet, considering the efforts of scholars such as C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards in the 1930s to reduce English to a mere 850 words, the better to transport the language to every corner of a waiting world, Shakespeare’s trove seems more than sufficient. He got literature out of his stock of words, after all.
And so did Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, who, 50 years ago, crafted an unforgettable children’s book, Green Eggs and Ham, from a stock of a mere 50 words.
The story has it that Seuss, visiting publisher Bennett Cerf in New York, happily remarked that he had used only 225 individual words in a previous book, The Cat in the Hat. Not impressed, Cerf—himself a writer of children’s books, most consisting of bad jokes that continue to poison my mind half a century later (“What’s big and red and eats rocks?” “A big red rock eater.”)—bet Seuss that he could not write a complete story using only 50.
Seuss returned with Green Eggs and Ham, which contains precisely 50 words, all but one of them (“anywhere”) consisting of a single syllable. The tale is a simple one: A strangely shaped mammal named Sam (or Sam-I-Am) exhorts an unnamed friend to try a delicious plate of green eggs and ham. Rightly suspecting any egg that, even after cooking, remains green, said friend adamantly refuses, saying, “I would not eat them with a fox. / I would not eat them in a box. / I would not eat them here or there. / I would not eat them anywhere. / I would not eat green eggs and ham. / I do not like them, Sam-I-Am.”
Pure poetry, that. Green Eggs and Ham was published in August 1960, just in time for me to count it among the earliest books I read, and it has gone on in the half-century since to become, by most measures, the fourth-bestselling children’s book in the English language, making for good commerce as well as good literature.
If only Shakespeare had been so economical. We might today be reading Green Eggs and Hamlet.