How Data Science Pinpointed the Creepiest Word in “Macbeth”

It’s not the word you’d expect — and it appears in this very sentence

Clive Thompson
Published in
7 min readAug 11, 2021


“Shakespeare”, by Ungry Young Man

Macbeth is a creepy play.

Actors have long been superstitious about acting in it. That’s partly because performances have been riddled with accidents and fatalities; indeed, actors consider it bad luck to even utter the name of the play. (They call it “The Scottish Tragedy”.) And it’s partly because the basic substance of the plot is eldritch: You’ve got black magic, witches, a gore-flecked ghost and walking forests.

But fans of Macbeth often say its freaky qualities are deeper than just the plot devices and characters. For centuries, people been unsettled by the very language of the play.

Actors and critics have long remarked that when you read Macbeth out loud, it feels like your voice and mouth and brain are doing something ever so slightly wrong. There’s something subconsciously off about the sound of the play, and it spooks people. It’s as if Shakespeare somehow wove a tiny bit of creepiness into every single line. The literary scholar George Walton Williams described the “continuous sense of menace” and “horror” that pervades even seemingly innocuous scenes.

For centuries, Shakespeare fans and theater folk have wondered about this, but could never quite explain it.

Then a clever bit of data analysis in 2014 uncovered the reason. (The paper is here.)

It turns out that Macbeth’s uncanny flavor springs from the unusual way that Shakespeare deploys one particular word, over and over again.

That word?


How could this be? How could the most common word in the English language (it appears three times in this very sentence) be responsible for the skin-crawling affect of Macbeth?

Initially, the scholars who did this analysis — Jonathan Hope and Michael Witmore — didn’t think to look at something as mundane as “the”.



Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”.