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Word of the Day: Falchion

James Harriman-Smith - 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.

Word of the Day: Nonce

James Harriman-Smith - January 6, 2012 in Word of the Day

What is a nonce? The OED offers us two meanings: the first (going back to 1175 and the original Old English root of ‘anum’) appears to be something to do with the number one; the second (origin unknown but possibly Lancastrian slang) is that of “a sexual deviant”, especially someone convicted of child abuse, and, as it only appeared in the late twentieth century, can be safely left out of this discussion.

You normally find the word ‘nonce’ in phrases with ‘for’, and Shakespeare gives us two of these. The most famous by far occurs at the end of Hamlet, when Claudius reveals one of the measures he will take to ensure Laertes victory in the upcoming duel between him and Claudius’ son-in-law.

CLAUDIUS When in your motion you are hot and dry,–
As make your bouts more violent to that end,–
And that he calls for drink, I’ll have prepar’d him
A chalice for the nonce; whereon but sipping,
If he by chance escape your venom’d stuck,
Our purpose may hold there.

Here, “for the nonce” means ‘for the particular purpose’ or, more likely, ‘for the particular occasion’. Both phrases depending on the original Old English sense of nonce as ‘one’ and thus also translatable as ‘for that one purpose’ or ‘for that one occasion’. The second of Shakespeare’s uses of the word ‘nonce’ – in <Henry IV part I – illustrates this clearly, as Pointz explains how he will camouflage his and Prince Hal’s clothes, for the express purpose of surprising Falstaff and the others on Gad’s Hill even more effectively: “sirrah, I have cases of buckram for the nonce, to immask our noted outward garments.”

One final nonce, that occurring in Henry VI part I. An Auvergnat Countess has taken the British captain Talbot prisoner, and is more than a little puzzled by the way in which her captive laughs and jokes about his being only Talbot’s “shadow”, since the captain is without his soldiers.

COUNTESS This is a riddling merchant for the nonce;
He will be here, and yet he is not here:
How can these contrarieties agree?

The ‘nonce’ here is probably best glossed as the third sense of the phrase ‘for the nonce’: quite simply, ‘verily, indeed’.

Word of the Day: Wassail

James Harriman-Smith - December 16, 2011 in Word of the Day

This is a very old word, going back certainly to before the Norman invasion, and thus to before Christmas was celebrated in the British Isles. The word ‘wassail’ comes from an Anglo-Saxon toast, “be thou healthy (hale)”, to which the correct response was apparently “drink healthy”. Old as the word is, though, Shakespeare still manages to anachronistically plant it in the mouth of Octavius Caesar (63BC – 14AD) about a quarter of the way through Antony and Cleopatra. Speaking to Antony, and disapproving with the Roman’s Egyptian love, he pleads, “Antony, / Leave thy lascivious wassails.”

As Octavius’ comments make clear, “wassail” is often not too highly regarded. Originally, the practice of wassailing involved a trip from door to door singing carols; however, this pleasant activity could easily become less cheery when the carollers requested alms and drink or, after having received their drink, then became rowdy. This is the sense of wassail most often found in Shakespeare (is Shakespeare a grinch? Again, the question seems relevant). Take this famous passage from Hamlet as an example, where “wassail” is synonymous with unruly behaviour:

HAMLET The King doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.

Similarly, it is with drink and “wassail” that Lady Macbeth plans to befuddle the guards around King Duncan, thus allowing her husband a chance at regicide.

Not to finish on a dismal note, I leave you with the last two occurrences of Shakespeare’s five mentions of “wassail”. Falstaff, being rather fat, compares himself to a “wassail candle” since he, like such objects, is made of “tallow”. In Love’s Labour’s Lost Berowne, last seen talking about Christmas, also gives us a reference to wassail, describing Boyet as “wit’s pedlar, and retails his wares / At wakes, and wassails, meetings, markets, fairs […]”.

Word of the Day: Turkey

James Harriman-Smith - December 9, 2011 in Word of the Day

Shakespeare has five turkeys in his works, scattered across the comedies and histories. There are no turkeys in the tragedies, perhaps because it was still rather rare to kill a turkey at Christmas in Shakespeare’s time, and a turkey thus led a less tragic life then than it does nowadays.

Indeed, one may suspect that the turkey was a rare sight in London, since Shakespeare is often careful to make clear that he is talking about the bird, especially when comparison to this particular avian is used as an insult. When the welshmen, Gower and Fluellen, see Pistol in Henry V, they describe him “swelling like a turkey-cock”. When Fabian wants to capture the hoodwinked Malvolio’s state of mind, he too reaches for the Christmas bird, saying that “Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock” out of Olivia’s steward. These two examples suggest a link between the turkey and pride, perhaps based on the ostentation of serving this delicacy at one’s table. Certainly, Gremio, reflecting on what makes him an eligible batchelor is very proud of another import, this time actually coming from the Middle East (whereas turkeys came from the New World), namely his “Turkey cushions”.

The final reference to a turkey in Shakespeare is the most banal, two salesmen in Henry IV part I, in a scene often excised, complain about their wares, and especially their far-from-festive turkeys…

2. CAR. I have a gammon of bacon and two razes of ginger, to be delivered as far as Charing-cross.
1. CAR. ‘Odsbody! the turkeys in my pannier are quite starved.

Word of the Day: Christmas

James Harriman-Smith - December 2, 2011 in Word of the Day

Shakespeare was, I’m sure, no grinch, but he does only mention ‘Christmas’ a mere three times, twice in the same play. That play is Love’s Labour’s Lost, and within it, Berowne is the xmas-obsessed character. Near the start of the play, as the King of Navarre and his friends prepare to vow themselves to celibacy, Berowne carps about such an oath, arguing – just before giving in to peer-pressure – that this is a bad idea since the time for celibacy is later, and that all things have their time, including festive weather:

BEROWNE Why should I joy in any abortive birth?
At Christmas I no more desire a rose
Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled shows;
But like of each thing that in season grows;
So you, to study now it is too late,
Climb o’er the house to unlock the little gate.

Of course, though, Christmas is about more than weather, and, as Berowne’s ‘everything in its time’ argument suggests, there were a host of traditional things to do. Eat turkey (as Henry VIII was one of the first to do), munch pies and make merry until Epiphany (or Twelfth Night) marked the climax of festivities. As regards specific entertainment, Berowne, speaking of his failed plan to impress the ladies two-thirds of the way through the play, mentions one such activity:

BEROWNE I see the trick on’t: here was a consent,
Knowing aforehand of our merriment,
To dash it like a Christmas comedy.

”A Christmas comedy” refers to the many plays put on to entertain revellers in the Christmas season, and may even refer to a specific performance of The Comedy of Errors at Gray’s Inn on 28th December 1598, which, ending in uproar, did not go well at all.

My final reference to Christmas comes from another of Shakespeare’s comedies, The Taming of the Shrew, and this time reveals a rather low opinion of the festive period. A troop of actors arrive at Christopher Sly’s house in an attempt to cheer him up; surprised, he questions his servants about their intent.

SLY. Marry, I will; let them play it. Is not a commonty a Christmas gambold or a tumbling-trick?
PAGE. No, my good lord; it is more pleasing stuff.

Word of the Day: Cacodemon

James Harriman-Smith - November 25, 2011 in Word of the Day

This word only appears once in Shakespeare’s works, but, I feel, nevertheless merits attention. It makes its appearance in the enormous third scene of Richard III, when Richard (currently Duke of Glo[uce]ster) enters a verbal duel with (the former) Queen Margaret. Given that Richard killed King Henry at the end of Henry VI part III, his wife does not hesitate to throw all manner of insults at him, interrupting his superficial piety.

GLOSTER. To fight on Edward’s party for the crown;
And for his meed, poor lord, he is mew’d up.
I would to God my heart were flint, like Edward’s,
Or Edward’s soft and pitiful, like mine:
I am too childish-foolish for this world.

QUEEN MARGARET.Hie thee to hell for shame and leave this world,
Thou cacodemon! there thy kingdom is.

The fact that Richard and those others on stage not only ignore this reference but go on to talk openly of how the one of Shakespeare’s most famous villains would be followed “if [he] should be our king” turn what might have been a biting interjection from the former queen into a proof of her waning power and Richard’s waxing strength. Just what, though, is a cacodemon?

Well, the word means ‘evil spirit’ and so might be adequately translated by lopping off its prefix and just using ‘demon’ (as the ‘No Fear Shakespeare’ does). ‘Demon’, in our AD society is always negative so the prefix caco-, meaning bad and found, for example, in cacophony (bad sound) and cacogastric (bad digestion), would seem to be redundant.

I’m not so sure, though. Shakespeare could have written ‘Thou art a demon’ and preserved his meter, but chose instead the pagan form, dating from the time when a demon or daimon could be good (eudaimon or agathodaimon) or bad (our cacodaimon). I think he did this to capture something superlative about Richard: as his actions in the play will prove, this character is not just diabolic, but superlatively so, evil even amongst other evils, and thus truly, as the ignored Margaret puts it, a caco-demon.

Word of the Day: Carbonado

James Harriman-Smith - November 11, 2011 in Word of the Day

After a slight hiatus, the Word of the Day returns to its favourite, culinary, hunting grounds with a word, drawn from Spanish and Italian, which means “A piece of meat or fish scored across and grilled over coals.” As the OED goes on to note, the word is “frequent in extended use”, a fact amply demonstrated by Shakespeare’s use of the term, since the closest he gets to designating food with the term is with The Winter’s Tale and Autolycus selling his ballads:

AUTOLYCUS Here’s one to a very doleful tune. How a usurer’s wife was brought to bed of twenty money-bags at a burden, and how she long’d to eat adders’ heads and toads carbonadoed.

Everywhere else in Shakespeare’s works, the ‘extended use’ is almost always an insulting one. Used as a verb, ‘carbonado’ means “to cut, slash or hack”, and sometimes to grill, as though one were making a Italian fish dish out of one’s adversaries. Thus Kent’s threat to Oswald in King Lear is particularly graphic about the courtier’s skinny legs:

KENT Draw, you rascal: you come with letters against the king; and take vanity the puppet’s part against the royalty of her father: draw, you rogue, or I’ll so carbonado your shanks: – draw, you rascal; come your ways!

Whilst the Clown of All’s Well that Ends Well suspects that such harsh treatment has already been given to Lafeu’s visage, which he calls a “carbonadoed face”. Given that ‘carbon’ (coal) is visible in ‘carbonadoed’ and ‘fire’ (‘feu’ in French) visible in Lafeu, the Clown is also playing on the lordling’s name here. No such subtlety for Falstaff who is simply terrified of meeting a gristly end as he blusters away on the battlefield of Henry IV part I.

FAL Well, if Percy be alive, I’ll pierce him. If he do come in my way, so; if he do not, if I come in his willingly, let him make a carbonado of me. I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter hath: give me life; which if I can save, so; if not, honour comes unlooked for, and there’s an end.

Two final observations on this word. First, it only ever appears in prose, hinting at both the word’s tongue-twisting qualities and its potentially lower register. Second, as a verb and as a noun, it bears the shameful ‘obs.’ in the OED. Please, therefore, kind reader, bring it out of obsolescence, and threaten to carbonado either your fishes or your foes.

Word of the Day: Qualm

James Harriman-Smith - 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.

Word of the Day: Dickens

James Harriman-Smith - October 28, 2011 in Word of the Day

This is not an article about the famous Victorian author, nor about the four cities in the USA all called Dickens, nor even the World War II battleship, the USS Dickens; rather, I write about a word that appears only once in Shakespeare’s works, in the following banter that takes place about halfway through The Merry Wives of Windsor.

FORD Well met, Mistress Page. Whither go you?
MISTRESS PAGE Truly, sir, to see your wife. Is she at home?
FORD Ay; and as idle as she may hang together, for want of company. I think, if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.
MISTRESS PAGE Be sure of that,–two other husbands.
FORD Where had you this pretty weather-cock?
MISTRESS PAGE I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my husband had him of. What do you call your knight’s name, sirrah?
ROBIN Sir John Falstaff.
FORD Sir John Falstaff!
MISTRESS PAGE He, he; I can never hit on’s name. There is such a league between my good man and he! Is your wife at home indeed?
FORD Indeed she is.
MISTRESS PAGE By your leave, sir: I am sick till I see her.

The exchange is worth quoting, not just for its sly reference to lesbianism, but to give a taste of the relaxed style of this dialogue: Mistress Page is on her way to something far more interesting, but takes the time to chat with Robin and Ford. This laid-back context is worth noting, particularly when we recall that the word ‘dickens’ means, according to the OED, ‘devil’.

No-one is quite sure of the etymology of ‘dickens’, but its presence as a modest and far from violent oath, in tune with Shakespeare’s comedy, is only attested from 1599 and Thomas Haywood’s King Edward IV. The exclamation is thus predated by the surname Dickens, which goes back much earlier, as all those places named after members of the Dickens family in the States would suggest. Quite what the Dickens’ family would have made of their family name becoming a mild oath is anyone’s guess, as they could have hardly seen the most probable evolution (from ‘devil’ to ‘devil-kins’ to ‘dickens’) coming.

One final note on the word ‘dickens’, or, more specifically, on the phrase ‘what the dickens’, which has remained a part of our everyday language long after we stopped saying ‘where the dickens have you been?’ and so forth. Bernard Levin famously places it amongst those expressions we use nowadays and owe to Shakespeare, even though Shakespeare was neither its originator nor first recorder. This is an important and oft-overlooked distinction: Shakespeare may be the source of many an English colloquialism, but he is rarely its inventor. Rather, his dramatist’s ear has placed all the curious turns of English in one particularly rich and varied oeuvre, and so facilitated their continuation.

Word of the Day: Harbinger

James Harriman-Smith - October 22, 2011 in Word of the Day

This is an unusual English word, having undergone a remarkable evolution from its medieval latin roots. It began, according to the OED, as the verb heribergare, meaning to provide lodgings for, and thus, from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries a ‘harbinger’ was a ‘host’, or ‘a common lodging house-keeper’. Unsurprisingly, Shakespeare’s six uses of the word have no such sense, although they do come close to the next evolution of the word, that which means not one who gives lodging but one who goes off in advance of a group to prepare it. In this way, Macbeth is quite literally a ‘knight harbinger’ when he promises the victorious Duncan that he will return ahead of the king and his army, and so “be myself the harbinger and make joyful / The hearing of my wife with your approach”.

Macbeth also provides us with an example of what is now the most recognisable modern sense of the word, a forerunner or, figuratively, an omen. Moments before battle is joined at Dunsinane, he orders his soldiers to “Make all our trumpets speak; give them all breath, / Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death.” Detectable in these words, although used metaphorically, is the remains of the pomp and circumstance that joins harbingers to greatness: thus the “blood and death” he foresees will be of great magnitude, since it is important enough to send harbingers in advance of itself.

To conclude, therefore, we find two senses of this word in Shakespeare, one who searches lodging and one who announces the arrival of another; in both, the presence of harbingers is a sign of greatness, whether the situation be literal or figurative. In this way Hamlet emphasises the country-wide menace of events in Denmark by calling them “harbingers preceding still the fates”; Puck captures the stunning magic of the dawn when he notices that “yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger”; and a misled Luciana underlines the bitterness of her counsel to “Apparel vice like virtue’s harbinger”.