Word of the Day: Tent

July 31, 2010 in Word of the Day

The summer weather is often the occasion for a bit of camping, not to mention the sports that generated the last two words for this feature. However, the vast majority of the occurrences of the word ‘tent’ in Shakespeare’s opus suggests that the use of tents in his time was not recreationary, but military. Tents provide a suitable location for the argument between Brutus and Cassius on the eve of the battle of Phillipi, for Richard III’s disturbed pre-battle sleep, and for many other warlike moments. It is no surprise that, in Henry IV part I, tents feature prominently in Lady Percy’s catalogue of her husband’s war talk:

LADY PERCY…And thou hast talk’d
Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
Of palisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basilisks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoners ransomed, and of soldiers slain,
And all the ‘currents of a heady fight.

For all its martial specificity, the word ‘tent’ is still easily understood by Shakespeare’s modern audiences, the word describing – to quote the OED – “A portable shelter or dwelling of canvas (formerly of skins or cloth), supported by means of a pole or poles, and usually extended and secured by ropes fastened to pegs which are driven into the ground”, and dating back to 1297. Yet, the OED has five separate entries for ‘tent’ as a noun, and it is certainly not that of a “portable shelter” used in Troilus and Cressida when Hectors argues that

HECTOR The wound of peace is surety,
Surety secure; but modest doubt is call’d
The beacon of the wise, the tent that searches
To th’ bottom of the worst.

Here it is instead, the medical sense of the word, where ‘tent’ is another word for a “probe” (OED). The word comes from the French ‘tenter’ (to test, or to try), and ultimately from the Latin ‘tentare’. With developments in medicine that rendered the investigative poking of a wound with a wad of cloth more or less redundant, the word fell out of use. It is, nevertheless, a particularly good word for Troilus and Cressida, a play stuffed with descriptions of the sickening horrors of war: the life in claustrophobic tents where Achilles hides himself away, and the violence that leaves many a wound in need of a tent.

One could say that, amongst all those characters that Shakespeare portrays in their tents, the Greeks are the unhappiest campers.

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