Word of the Day: Brimstone

January 20, 2012 in Word of the Day

Given that it’s been a while since I last wrote about Shakespeare and fire, I decided to return to the topic with this thrice-occurring word. Although we now talk about the ‘brim’ or edge of an object, the first syllable of today’s word is a distant descendant of the verb ‘burn’, as can be seen in the German for brimstone, bernstein (incidentally, also the surname of the composer behind the famous adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story).

Brimstone is another word for sulphur, since sulphur is highly inflammable. The term used to be very common, and, tellingly, made it into the first English translation of the Bible. At one end of the good book, Genesis 19:24 talks about “brimstone and fire” that God rained on Sodom and Gomorrah; and, at the other end, Revelations 19:20 describes how idolators and those with the mark of the beast “were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone”.

Given these Biblical overtones, it is unsurprising to find two out of the three uses of “brimstone” in Shakespeare’s works involve oaths. Sir Toby, never one to speak with much refinement, bursts out with “Fire and brimstone!” when he overhears Malvolio’s daydreams about his employer and Toby’s sister, Olivia, for the first time. Elsewhere, Othello shouts, “Fire and brimstone!” when Desdemona unwittingly mentions how fond she is of Cassio. Given that Othello normally speaks with great polish, his slip into the same language as Sir Toby gives us a sense of how strikingly vulgar his emotional explosion must appear.

One last instance, again from Twelfth Night but this time from Sir Toby’s companion, Fabian, explaining to Sir Andrew Aguecheek that Olivia’s behaviour towards the disguised Viola/Cesario was obviously only intended to “ put fire in your heart and brimstone in your liver”. Although, as soon becomes clear, Aguecheek’s wrath is far from possessing divine proportions…

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