Word of the Day: Sword

May 27, 2012 in Word of the Day

Henry V, Act II, Scene 1:

NYM You’ll pay me the eight shillings I won of you at betting?
PISTOL Base is the slave that pays.
NYM That now I will have: that’s the humour of it.
PISTOL As manhood shall compound: push home.

They draw

BARDOLPH By this sword, he that makes the first thrust, I’ll kill him; by this sword, I will.
PISTOL Sword is an oath, and oaths must have their course.

The terse Nym confronts Pistol about a gambling debt, which the latter defiantly refuses to settle. But Pistol is the consummate bragging coward and finds his excuse to back down when Bardolph intervenes. But how does Pistol manage to back down while trying to save face? He exclaims, “Sword is an oath, and oaths must have their course.” Bardolph, having drawn his weapon, has cried, “By this sword . . . by this sword . . . .”
But how is Bardolph’s weapon an oath? Answer: it isn’t. What the coward Pistol has done is to pretend that Bardolph has sworn by “’sword”—a contraction of “His [i.e., Christ’s] word” (equivalent to the many other minced oaths, like “‘sblood,” “’swounds,” and so forth). And thus he can stand down from his confrontation with Nym.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play in which Shakespeare uses rhyme a lot, gives evidence that “sword” and “word” were rhyming words (Act II, Scene 2 and Act V, Scene 1). In the former scene Shakespeare also rhymes “word” with “lord.”
Two conclusions about pronunciation:

  1. The vowel sound in “word” has moved more from its Early Modern English pronunciation than that of “sword” and “lord.”
  2. The “w” sound in “sword” had not been completely lost at that date.

Extraneous observation:

  • Kenneth Branagh in his film version of Henry V leaves this exchange out; maybe he didn’t understand it.

Contributed by Harold Gotthelf

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