January 13, 2012 in Word of the Day
In Latin, the word ‘falx’ means sickle, the sharp but relatively small and harmless object whose name has – through vulgar Latin falcion-em, Italian falcione, Old French fauchon and Middle English fauchoun – come to mean a broad sword, often slightly curved with the edge on the convex side. The word ‘falchion’ (pronounced with a soft ‘ch’, f-’or-l-sh-u-n) thus comes from peaceful origins to appear eight times in some of the most bloody scenes of Shakespeare.
York, in Henry VI part III describes how “oft Edward came to my side / With purple falchion painted to the hilt”; Anne tells Richard (currently Duke of Gloucester but future Richard III) that “Queen Margaret saw / Thy murderous falchion smoking in [her husband’s, the same Edward York is talking about] blood”; and a dying King Lear recalls that “I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion, I would have made them skip”. Elsewhere, The Rape of Lucrece accounts for half of all Shakespeare’s uses of the word, fittingly enough as ‘falchion’ is noted by the OED as often being a poetic synonym for the monosyllabic “sword”. Shakespeare’s concentration on Tarquin’s “falchion” in his long poem, however, hints at another meaning:
His falchion on a flint he softly smiteth,
That from the cold stone sparks of fire do fly;
Whereat a waxen torch forthwith he lighteth,
Which must be lode-star to his lustful eye;
And to the flame thus speaks advisedly:
‘As from this cold flint I enforced this fire,
So Lucrece must I force to my desire.’
The coordintation of Tarquin’s falchion, the sparks of its sharpening, and the fires of lust in this stanza underline a link between the Roman man’s weapon and his libido. Indeed, what is obvious here can be glimpsed in King Lear’s regret that he was no longer sufficiently strong and manly to wield a falchion in defence of Cordelia. Taking this connection between falchions and the phallus in a different direction brings us to Shakespeare’s last use of the word, and the only one from a comedy. Boyet, joining in the group mocking of Holofernes at the end of Love’s Labour’s Lost, tells the poor man that his face resembles “The pommel of Caesar’s falchion”, by far the least impressive part of this weapon.