Word of the Day: Qualm

November 4, 2011 in Word of the Day

Nowadays, we use the word qualm to mean a misgiving or pang of conscience, best seen in such phrases as “He had no qualms about taking candy from children”, and so forth. You might suspect a similar meaning in Shakespeare’s day, especially since our modern sense of the word still serves to make a joke out of a conversion between had by the princess and her ladies in Love’s Labour’s Lost, on the topic of their beaux.

MARIA Dumaine was at my service, and his sword:
‘No point’ quoth I; my servant straight was mute.

KATHARINE Lord Longaville said, I came o’er his heart;
And trow you what he call’d me?

PRINCESS Qualm, perhaps.

However, Katharine’s reference to Longaville’s heart hints at a rather more sinister origin to the word, a sense still active at Shakespeare’s time and which here makes the Princess’ quip considerably more cutting. In Henry VI part II, for example, Glocester seems to be affected by rather more than a feeling of compunction, as he finds himself unable to continue reading the harsh details of the proposed peace settlement with France:

GLOSTER Pardon me, gracious lord;
Some sudden qualm hath struck me at the heart
And dimm’d mine eyes, that I can read no further.

Glocester, who will die later in the trilogy from his weak heart, here suffers the first signs of illness. This is the original, sinister, meaning of qualm: in Old English it means death, plague and calamity; and by Shakespeare’s era, it meant a sudden fit of faintness or sickness (as well as the modern sense). Other, related, and long-gone meanings for qualm include the cry of a raven (a bird long associated with mortality), and the act of boiling (the result of confusion between warm/walm/qualm).

One final example completes the picture: Beatrice, having unwittingly revealed her affection for Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing is simultaneously teased and comforted by Margaret.

BEATRICE It is not seen enough, you should wear it in your cap. By my troth, I am sick.

MARGARET Get you some of this distilled Carduus Benedictus, and lay it to your heart: it is the only thing for a qualm.

Margaret’s joke only works here when you understand that “qualm” was both a misgiving and a legitimate medical syptom, and thus doubly apt for treatment by exposure to “Carduus Benedictus”, latin for ‘Blessed Thistle’ but innuendo for something much more romantic.

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