Word of the Day: Quondam

July 15, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

The word “quondam”, as any latinist will tell you, means “formerly”. It, like “i.e.” (‘id est’, or ‘that is’), “vice versa” and other Latin terms, was current in the English of Shakespeare’s time. It occurs twice, for example, in Henry VI part III: first, the keeper spots the “quondam King” (deposed Henry VI) and an opportunity to make a quick buck; whilst, later in the play, Warwick describes Henry’s wife as “our quondam queen”. Being a Latin (and legal) term, it also occurs in the overblown language of Nathaniel in Love’s Labour’s Lost, who talks of how he met “this quondam day with a companion of the king’s who is intituled, nominated, or called, Don Adriano de Armado.”

The sense that “quondam” is a rather formal way of saying “erstwhile” or “formerly” can be traced in every one of Shakespeare’s uses of the word. However, the three other passages to be treated here also all link “quondam” with sex. Pistol promises that “I have, and will hold the quondam Quickly” in a rather physical riff on the marriage vows in Henry V; Hector, in Troilus and Cressida, bates Menelaus by telling him that Helen, his “quondam wife swears still by Venus’ glove / She’s well, but bade me not commend her to you”; and Benedick describes former ladies’ men as “quondam carpet-mongers” in Much Ado About Nothing.

This relation between “quondam” and sexual mores has been explored elsewhere. Some, for example, point to the obvious sexual reference when Chaucer’s Wife of Bath describes how men have always loved her “quoniam” to elaborate a theory about “qu-” words and their relation bawdiness (cf. the Elizabethan “quean”, for a prostitute). Elsewhere, and perhaps most interestingly, research suggests that “quondam” may lie behind the modern word ‘condom’: eighteenth-century Scots routinely replaced a “C-” at the start of English words formerly beginning with “Qu-” (thus ‘corter’ for ‘quarter’), and so could be found giving advice about birth control through the use of a “quondam”. Quite whether this can be extended back to Shakespeare’s time is still a matter of debate, although Hector’s comments about “Venus’ glove” do make for tempting evidence…

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