You are browsing the archive for Word of the Day.

Word of the Day: Crab

James Harriman-Smith - August 10, 2011 in Word of the Day

There are more mentions of ‘Crab the Dog’ than ‘crab the crustacean’ in Shakespeare’s works. The canine variety is found exclusively in The Two Gentleman of Verona, being the name of Launce’s faithful friend, albeit as “the sourest-natured dog that lives”. After all, Crab the Dog gets his name from the resemblance between his nature and that of the crab-apple tree, Latin ‘malus’, whose sour fruit would be the first object to come to the mind of an Early Modern man upon hearing mention of ‘crabs.’

The sour taste of the crabapple reappears in King Lear, where the Fool compares Goneril’s nature to the bitter fruit, saying that “She’ll taste as like this [i.e. Reagan] as a crab does to a crab”. Petruchio, being called “a crab” by Katherine the Shrew, presumably because of his resemblance to the notoriously gnarly produce of the tree, turns the insult on its head by retorting, “Why here’s no crab, and therefore look not sour.”

The lack of aesthetic appeal to the crab-apple powers what Nathaniel – with his tongue firmly in cheek – describes as the “sweetly varied” language of Holofernes, the schoolmaster who compares the fall of a shot deer to “a crab on the face of terra, the soil, the land, the earth” in Love’s Labour’s Lost Whilst Holofernes speaks bastard Latin, it is a rather different question of heredity that the crab-apple points up in Henry VI pt II, when Suffolk accuses Warwick’s mother of infidelity:

> SUFFOLK Blunt-witted lord, ignoble in demeanour!
> If ever lady wrong’d her lord so much,
> Thy mother took into her blameful bed
> Some stern untutor’d churl, and noble stock
> Was graft with crab-tree slip, whose fruit thou art,
> And never of the Nevils’ noble race.

With all this talk of crab-apple trees and their relation to sour dispositions, ugliness, disease and marital infidelity, it comes of something of a surprise to learn that when Hamlet talks of crabs, he is in fact the only character in all Shakespeare’s works to have the crustacean in mind. That said, he famously has a rather strange idea of the creature, madly telling Polonius that he could only resemble Hamlet “if, like a crab, he could go backward”.

Word of the Day: Needle

James Harriman-Smith - August 8, 2011 in Word of the Day

There are nine needles to be found in Shakespeare’s works, a task made easy by this very website. The word appears most frequently in The Taming of the Shrew, where Gremio boasts of the “Valance of Venice gold in needle-work” that figures amongst his treasures, and Petruchio turns on the tailor whose “needle and thread” have – apparently – produced an ill-fitting gown for Katherine. That hapless Tailor is the one man in all of the plays and poems to wield a needle, whose usage was normally considered a female activity: Baptista, for example, tells Katherine’s sister, Bianca, to leave and “ply thy needle” when the her shrewish sibling turns nasty.

Needlework is not always a way of dismissing a woman, though: Othello praises Desdemona for being “so delicate with her needle” that it defeats all his violent thoughts, and Imogen, the heroine of Cymbeline, reconfigures needlework as a kind of female empowerment when she imagines how she would, if possible, stand “by with a needle, that [she] might prick / The goer back” in an imaginary duel between the Queen’s son and the exiles of the play.

Of course, as soon as the needle might represent female power, it becomes a topic of male banter amongst some of Shakspeare’s viler characters. Thersites insults Ajax in Troilus and Cressida by saying that he has “not so much wit [...] as will stop the eye of Helen’s needle”, and there is definitely some lewd reference here to phallic needles, eyes/holes and Helen’s supposed promiscuity. A similar configuration of tropes occurs when Tarquin stalks towards the sleeping Lucrece:

> And being lighted, by the light he spies
> Lucretia’s glove, wherein her needle sticks;
> He takes it from the rushes where it lies,
> And griping it, the neeld his finger pricks:
> As who should say this glove to wanton tricks
> Is not inur’d: return again in haste;
> Thou see’st our mistress’ ornaments are chaste.

This time, the needle epitomises the weakness of the woman’s power to resist the Roman warrior, and grimly foretells Lucrece’s later suicide with a dagger. To conclude, one might set this tragic piece of needlework against Gower’s description of Marina in one of the choruses of Pericles: here, in this late play, suffering remains paramount but its potential as a source of strength is also evoked, all with the image of a woman wielding a needle:

> when she would with sharp needle wound,
> The cambric, which she made more sound
> By hurting it […]

Word of the Day: Unborn

James Harriman-Smith - August 5, 2011 in Word of the Day

Standing with the corpse of Caesar at their feet, Cassio tells Brutus:

> Stoop then, and wash. How many ages hence
> Shall this our lofty scene be acted o’er
> In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

These four lines fall almost precisely at the centre of Julius Caesar, and mark a particularly vertiginous moment for the play’s audience. A great part of the dizzying effect depends on the use of two words beginning with ‘un-’. In this case the use of the prefix (as opposed to writing “not born”, for example), captures the special sense of Cassio’s speech: future states and accents have not yet come in to being, but they will. The word ‘unborn’, like all words beginning with such a prefix, unites two states: being born and not being born. Thus there is an added element of tragedy to the grief of Richard II’s childless wife, when she tells the courtier Bushy:

> Some unborn sorrow, ripe in fortune’s womb,
> Is coming towards me, and my inward soul
> With nothing trembles; at some thing it grieves
> More than with parting from my lord the king.

Many commentators take this line to refer to a stillborn heir; if so, then “unborn”, capturing both the possibility of birth and its tragic denial, is the apt and awful word for the occasion.

There are over 700 different words beginning with “un-” in Shakespeare’s works, all (excluding those with the under- prefix) of them preserving the balance of possibility and denial already seen with “unborn”. Particular examples include: Octavius arguing that one should “let determined things to destiny / Hold unbewail’d their way” in Antony and Cleopatra; both Lear and, metaphorically, Othello appearing “unbonneted”; the young prince Humphry describing “unfather’d heirs” at the end of Henry IV part II; Cymbeline fearing to appear “unkinglike”; Henry V apologising to the future Queen Katherine for his provoking or “untempering” visage; and, strangest of all, Isabella talking about “unwedgeable oak”. This last example is part of an exchange between the heroine of Measure for Measure and its villain, Angelo, where Isabella’s emotion appears in such dense and passionate speech on the topic of abused authority that it merits quotation:

> [...] Could great men thunder
> As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
> For every pelting, petty officer
> Would use his heaven for thunder;
> Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
> Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
> Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
> Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
> Drest in a little brief authority,
> Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
> His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
> Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
> As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
> Would all themselves laugh mortal.

Word of the Day: Candle

James Harriman-Smith - August 4, 2011 in Word of the Day

My last word, bell, concluded with the Bastard’s oath:

> BASTARD Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back,
> When gold and silver becks me to come on. [...]

The three objects mentioned are those used in the rites of exorcism, the flamboyant villain of King John comparing himself to the devil. Strikingly similar phrasing is found in an exchange between Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and Mephistopheles:

> MEPHIST. Nay, I know not: we shall be cursed with bell, book, and candle.
> FAUSTUS. How! bell, book, and candle,—candle, book, and bell,—
> Forward and backward, to curse Faustus to hell!

Faustus and his demon are here, in a piece of anti-Catholic foolery, mocking the Pope’s efforts to rid them from the Vatican, as the candle, book and bell of exorcism fail utterly. Moving away from religious uses, but keeping the element of mockery, we find many mixes of candles and insults in Shakespeare’s works. Falstaff’s girth often leads to jokes about how many candles could be made by turning his fat to “tallow” in Henry IV part I and II; Demetrius criticises the presence of a “candle [...] already in snuff” to represent the mechanicals’ moonshine as the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and Leonato rails against those who stay up all night drinking by calling them “candle-wasters” in Much Ado About Nothing.

Rather more innocently, Romeo imagines himself as nothing more than a lovesick “candle-holder” at the Capulet ball, the early modern expression for what we would now call third who makes a crowd, which also survives in the French expression for the same phenomenon: “porter la chandelle”. Candles too appear with reference to love in The Merchant of Venice, which mentions the object more than any other play: Jessica fears having to “hold a candle to my shame” of running away for love, and Portia, returning to Belmont after saving Antonio, spots from afar the wax-based lights of her household:

> PORTIA. That light we see is burning in my hall.
> How far that little candle throws his beams!
> So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

These lines on good deeds contrast nicely to what must be the most famous use of candles in Shakespeare’s work, the comparison between the burning of a candle and the duration of a human life. It is hardly unique to Shakespeare but is nevertheless used twice in his works, both times in the mouths of warriors. It occurs first when Clifford dies on the battlefield of Henry VI part III, and ,superlatively, when Macbeth learns of his wife’s death.

> MACBETH. She should have died hereafter;
> There would have been a time for such a word.-
> To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
> Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
> To the last syllable of recorded time;
> And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
> The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
> Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player,
> That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
> And then is heard no more: it is a tale
> Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
> Signifying nothing.

Word of the Day: Bell

James Harriman-Smith - August 3, 2011 in Word of the Day

Stage effects in Shakespeare’s time were, unsurprisingly, far more limited than they are today. They were also considerably more dangerous: the Globe theatre burnt down in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII when the live gunfire used, with great literal-mindedness, to represent real gunfire struck the thatch roof and brought the wooden theatre down in minutes. No-one was hurt, save for an unfortunate sole whose burns would have been far more serious had he not been dowsed in beer by his friends. If someone had been hurt, though, the theatre was well provided to signal injury and danger, possessing as it did that rather less dangerous producer of stage effects, the humble bell. With a strong sense of practicality, bells are everywhere in Shakespeare’s works, used to to set up a variety of atmospheres, with little danger to the “wooden O” of the globe.

From the seventy-two appearances of bells in Shakespeare’s texts, five different uses appear, with much blurring between them. Amongst the most frequent is the bell as the death knell: the priest promises that Ophelia will have “bell and burial” despite her apparent suicide in Hamlet; news of Hotspur’s death at the start of Henry IV part II is compared to the sound of “a sullen bell”, a phrase also used by the Sonnet-writer for his own passing (LXXI); and the song that plays as Bassanio chooses his casket in The Merchant of Venice tolls the beginning and the end of infatuation:

> It is engend’red in the eyes,
> With gazing fed; and fancy dies
> In the cradle where it lies.
> Let us all ring fancy’s knell:
> I’ll begin it.–Ding, dong, bell.

There are many more examples that I leave out here. Macbeth, for example, is full of knells, or, rather, of bells that Macbeth hears as knells: the bells that ring after Duncan’s murder are, for example, “a knell / That summons thee to heaven or to hell”. Other bells in the play include the “alarum bell”, which also makes its appearance in Othello (when a drunken Cassio kills Roderigo), and in Henry VI part I (when the French prepare their attack), to name but a few examples.

Far from the battlefield or the funeral, bells also serve to mark the time. They ring the hour on the battlements of Elsinore at the start of Hamlet, and mark dinnertime in The Comedy of Errors. In one of Shakespeare’s most touching scenes, an imprisoned and deposed Richard II compares himself to a broken clock, right down to its carillon:

> [...] For now hath time made me his numbering clock:
> My thoughts are minutes; and with sighs they jar
> Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
> Whereto my finger, like a dial’s point,
> Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
> Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
> Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart,
> Which is the bell: so sighs and tears and groans
> Show minutes, times, and hours [...]

My last few examples concern other bells: the head of a flower can be called a bell (as Ariel’s bower in “a cowslip’s bell” attests), and the ram that leads a flock a “bell-wether”, after the bell he carries on his neck (thus Touchstone calls a shepherd “a bawd to a bell-wether” in As You Like It, for example).

Having run from burning theatres to animal husbandry, I conclude with one last quote involving bells, this time from King John, which I shall explain in my next piece.

> BASTARD Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back,
> When gold and silver becks me to come on. [...]

Word of the Day: Unicorn

James Harriman-Smith - August 1, 2011 in Word of the Day

As befits an animal so rare that Sebastian, brother to the King of Naples, lists it among the previously incredible rare phenomena in which he will now believe after witnessing Propsero’s masque in The Tempest, there are only four mentions of the unicorn in Shakespeare’s opus. This makes the mythical creature rarer than elephants, basilisks and parrots (to name a few). Funnily enough, however, the unicorn appears with the elephant in a speech by Decius just prior to the fulfilment of the conspiracy at the heart of Julius Caesar. Decius is giving examples of how even the most special and powerful of beings can be brought low, as Caesar will be on the Capitol:

> DECIUS [...] unicorns may be betray’d with trees,
> And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,
> Lions with toils, and men with flatterers:
> But when I tell him he hates flatterers,
> He says he does, being then most flattered.
> Let me work;
> For I can give his humor the true bent,
> And I will bring him to the Capitol.

The idea that unicorns, like other creatures, have their weaknesses, is also something brought up by Timon of Athens during a rambling debate on the topic of the humane and the bestial with the philospher Apemantus. The misanthrope counters Apemantus’ wish to be a best as follows, taking the unicorn as a climax in his argument:

> If thou wert the lion, the fox would beguile thee; if thou wert the lamb, the fox would eat thee; if thou wert the fox, the lion would suspect thee, when peradventure, thou wert accused by the ass; if thou wert the ass, thy dulness would torment thee, and still thou livedst but as a breakfast to the wolf; if thou wert the wolf, thy greediness would afflict thee, and oft thou shouldst hazard thy life for thy dinner; wert thou the unicorn, pride and wrath would confound thee and make thine own self the conquest of thy fury; [...] What beast couldst thou be that were not subject to a beast?

The combination of rarity and special power that the above passages find in the unicorn is complemented by another idea in The Rape of Lucrece. As many know already, unicorns were famous for being wild and free, and only susceptible to taming by a virgin. This sexual element lurks in the background of a long speech on the wonders of time given by Shakespeare’s heroine, where it is – conspicuously – time and not virginity that triumph over the unicorns power, “To slay the tiger that doth live by slaughter, / To tame the unicorn and lion wild”. If there were any doubt over the sinister application of this example in the mouth of a vulnerable woman, one need only look elsewhere in the same passages to see that the tragedy of the unicorn (special, proud, vulnerable and desired) is the same as Lucrece’s, for Lucrece invokes time with the terrible feeling that its power will not aid her, even though it should “eat up errors by opinion bred, / Not spend the dowry of a lawful bed”.

Word of the Day: Quondam

James Harriman-Smith - 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…

Word of the Day: Neapolitan

James Harriman-Smith - July 14, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

“Neapolitan” describes someone or something from Naples. The difference between the adjective and the noun is the result of the latter having evolved much more rapidly than the former. from its original Greek ‘neapolis’ (‘new city’) to modern Napoli or Naples. The city, despite a name that proclaims its newness, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with its most famous resident being the Roman poet Virgil, much beloved by Shakespeare. Little of this storied history makes it into Shakespeare’s plays, however, which tend to focus on more general stereotypes about Neapolitans.

In the Merchant of Venice, a Neapolitan prince is amongst Portia’s unsuccessful suitors, not least because he “doth nothing but talk of his horse”, leading Portia to quip that she is “much afeard my lady his mother play’d false with a smith”. Neapolitan ancestry comes up in much more serious terms in Henry VI part II, when York, captured by Margaret and her Lancastrian forces, curses her in defiance as the “Outcast of Naples, England’s bloody scourge”.

Portia’s wit about sexual infidelity, and York’s violent outburst come together in Thersites description of the “Neapolitan bone-ache” that he finds on the battlefield of Troy in Troilus and Cressida. The “bone-ache” is syphilis, and marks yet another less than flattering reference to Naples in Shakespeare’s works. When Lucentio suggests that he disguise himself as “Some Neapolitan” in The Taming of the Shrew in order to deceive his beloved’s father, Biondello, he must surely have got a laugh, given that such a choice of disguise inadvertantly implies sexual decadence and disease as much as Neapolitan wealth.

Despite all these ignominious Neapolitans, there is one character in Shakespeare’s works who goes some way to redeeming the city. That character is Gonzalo, the elderly councillor mocked by the other court members in The Tempest, but revealed to have been a friend to Propsero in exile, and thus, in the magician’s words, “A noble Neapolitan”, valued all the more for his contradiction of a stereotype:

PROSPERO By Providence divine.
Some food we had and some fresh water that
A noble Neapolitan, Gonzalo,
Out of his charity, – who being then appointed
Master of this design, / did give us, with
Rich garments, linens ,stuffs, and necessaries,
Which since have steaded much: so, of his gentleness.
Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnish’d me,
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.

Word of the Day: Kated

James Harriman-Smith - July 13, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

This word, which only occurs once in Shakespeare’s works, is a neologism, a new word invented by Shakespeare. Of course, it is far from being the only neologism in the bard’s works: we have Shakespeare to thank for the words “brittle”, “bump”, “countless”, “dwindle”, “eventful” and many more. “Kated”, though, is a rather special neologism since it is created from a proper noun, from Katherine, the shrew of The Taming of the Shrew. Thanks to the new Duchess of Cambridge, every British person and most of the world now knows, Kate is the familiar form of K/Catherine, and Shakespeare has taken this form, turning it first into a verb (to kate someone) before conjugating that verb as a past participle and inserting it into some banter between Kate’s sister, Bianca and her suitor, Gremio:

LUCENTIO Mistress, what’s your opinion of your sister?
BIANCA That, being mad herself, she’s madly mated.
GREMIO I wattant him, Petruchio is Kated.

This exchange occurs at the end of Act III, when Petruchio, declaring that Kate is “my good, my chattels … / My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything” takes off with his wife from their own marriage celebration, leaving Bianca and the others in some consternation behind them. Brian Morris, who edited the play in 1981, hears an echo of Much Ado About Nothing in the sentiment that “Petruchio is Kated”, imagining “Kate” to be taken as some kind of disease in the same way that Beatrice fears that Claudio has “caught the Benedick”. Another possibility, entirely of my own invention, is the similarity between ‘Kate’ and ‘cates’, the latter referring to a choice food or delicacy, with the punning sense here that Petruchio does not want a marriage feast, but would rather enjoy his Kate/cates elsewhere.

Either way, this single word is rich with meaning, and is perhaps best understood as a sly joke on the similarities between Kate and Petruchio, which ultimately lead to one of the warmest relationships in Shakespeare’s oeuvre. With this in mind, perhaps “kated” should, like some of the playwright’s better-known neologisms, take up its place in our everyday speech, describing the moment when someone meets their match in matrimony. Now is an apt time for such an undertaking: after all, an obvious example in 2011 would be “Prince William is Kated”.

Word of the Day: Jump

openliterature - July 10, 2011 in Shakespeare, Word of the Day

There are two hundred and twenty five defintions of the word jump, as adjective, noun, and verb, in the OED, many of them now obsolete (compare Merriam-Webster’s three). Shakespeare only uses the word fourteen times, but the way in which he does shows a marked divergence between modern usage and his own. Personally, jump for me will always be associated with leaps and bounds. This is also true of the sonneteer Shakespeare, who writes that “If the dull substance of my flesh were thought, / Injurious distance should not stop my way; / … / For nimble thought can jump both sea and land”; and for Falstaff, describing how both Poins and the young Prince Hal both jump “upon joined stools” in Henry IV part II.

Rather less common nowadays than the sense of a jump over, away, or to something, is the meaning of “jumping” as “coinciding”. Shakespeare uses it frequently. In The Taming of the Shrew, the devious Trantio tells his fellow marriage-conspirator, Lucentio, that “Both our inventions meet and jump in one”; Viola, in Twelfth Night, recognises her brother because the elements of his story, “place, time, fortune, do cohere and jump / That I am Viola”; and the Prince of Arragon, suitor to Portio in Merchant of Venice, proves his egoism by choosing the golden cask and declaring that “I will not jump with common spirits”.

This sense of coincidence and similarity in “jump” is also found in its adjectival/adverbial usage, meaning “coinciding, exactly agreeing; even; exact, precise”. On the battlements of Elsinore, Marcellus tells Horatio that the Ghost has appeared “twice before, and jump at this dead hour”; and Iago plots to bring Othello “jump when he may Casio find / Soliciting his wife”.

Other uses of the word include: the sense of ‘chance’, as Caesar, facing down Antony’s Egyptian army, declares that “our fortune lies / Upon this jump”; and to surprise-attack, or set upon, as Coriolanus calls upon those in his public audience “That love the fundamental part of state / More than you doubt the change on’t; that prefer / A noble life before a long, and wish / To jump a body with dangerous physic / That’s sure of death without it.” However, perhaps the most memorable use of the word jump comes in what now passes as one of the bawdiest speeches in Shakespeare’s oeuvre: a rustic servant describing the not-so-innocent wares of Autolycus the courtier-peddlar in The Winter’s Tale, with a rhyme between “jump” and “thump”:

SERVANT He hath songs for man or woman of al sizes; no milliner can so fit his customers with gloves: he has the prettiest love-songs for maids; so without bawdry, which is strange; with such delicate burdens of ‘dildos’ and ‘fadings’, ‘jump her and thump her’ [...]