Word of the Day: Garlic

June 3, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

Having dealt with onions last week, garlic seemed the next logical step. Whereas onions were much associated with womanly weeping, garlics have a rather more intimate range of uses. There are only four examples of the word in all Shakespeare’s works, and all four refer to the smell of this vegetable. Dorcas, one of Bohemia’s shepherdess, for example, teases her friend Mopsa when she declares a need for “garlic, to mend her kissing with!”

A rather less innocent mix of garlics and osculation is made in Measure for Measure by the “fantastic” of the play, Lucio. When speaking to a friar who, unbeknownst to him, is actually the disguised Duke Vincentio, Lucio offers a lewd, unsubstantiated account of Vincentio’s doings:

The duke, I say to thee again, would eat mutton on Fridays. He’s not past it; yet, and, I say to thee, he would mouth with a beggar though she smelt brown bread and garlic. Say that I said so.–Farewell.

Quite why brown bread and garlic should be associated is a mystery to me, and perhaps material for another article. Of equal interest here, though, is the link between garlic and the poor. One finds the same association in Coriolanus, whose eponymous hero doesn’t quite have to ask beggars for their votes, but he does have to meet many a plebian and is afterwards flattered by Menenius for his ability to stand “The breath of garlic-eaters”.

Last but not least, we have a mystified Hotspur, who, having spent some time with Glendower and his fantastic stories of “dreamer Merlin” and “skimble-skamble stuff” declares that,

… I had rather live
With cheese and garlic in a windmill, far,
Than feed on cates and have hi talk to me
In any summer-house in Christendom.

“Cates” was an Elizabethan word for delicacies (delicates), and the fact the proud and noble Hotspur would prefer the peasant’s garlic over Glendower and sweets is strong language indeed. In fact, he would not only take garlic, but also cheese into the bargain as well, and become positively French to avoid the Welsh lord’s ramblings.

On which note, I end my own ramblings, with the disclaimer that all attribution of garlic and cheese to the French is entirely of my own whimsical fabrication, and has no roots whatsoever in the language of Shakespeare.

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