Do You Understand the True Bard or the False? Some Shakespeare Etymologies

Do You Understand the True Bard or the False? Some Shakespeare Etymologies
Updated on 20 April 2015

Guest post by Annie Martirosyan

There are a number of words in Shakespeare’s plays and poems which are deceptive to modern ears. They may seem familiar words but, in fact, camouflage a quite different meaning lost to modern English. In Linguistics, these words are called False Friends. A False Friend is a word which has kept its form but has strayed from its original sense (or was a completely different word) so that the modern English word is false when compared to the original sense or word. Shakespeare likes to extend the wordplay further by often deliberately using words in their older senses. Here are some False Friends to keep an eye on:

Bootless Now: without large shoes Shakespeare’s use/meaning: useless, making no better Historically, there were boot (1) and boot (2). Boot (1) as shoes dates back to the 13th century. Boots (2) is an older usage that first occurs in Beowulf in the sense of remedy, improvement, advantage. In Shakespeare, we encounter boots (2). So, when in Sonnet 29, the poet troubles ‘deaf heaven with [his] bootless cries’ or the Fairy tells us how Puck ‘bootless make[s] the breathless housewife churn (Midsummer Night’s Dream, II.i.37), we should read bootless as useless, in vain.

Doubt Now: hesitate Shakespeare’s use/meaning: not only hesitate, but also be afraid of, dread Usage of doubt in the sense that is predominant in Shakespeare’s works can be traced back to as early as 1200s. However, the meaning of hesitate was there in the ultimate Latin source dubitāre and related to dubious, hence the influence on the English loan word. In some Shakespearean contexts, these two close senses can be interpreted as contrary to each other. For example, when Bastard says, ‘Conduct me to the King; I doubt he will be dead or ere I come” (King John,, he fears the King will be dead before he arrives.

Excrement Now: waste matter discharged from the body Shakespeare’s use/meaning: broadly applying to any substances pushed from the body Now, that’s a naughty one! The word excrement is registered from 1533 in the sense we know today. But Shakespeare, the king of filthy puns, uses it in a completely new sense. Before you give vent to your imagination, when Armado brags regarding the King’s liking to ‘with his royal finger thus dally with my excrement’ (Love’s Labour’s Lost, V.i.98), he is referring to his growth of hair. Sounds filthier? Armado himself clarifies it in his next line, ‘my mustachio’ (V.i.99).

Happily Now: joyously, gaily Shakespeare’s use/meaning: primarily, perhaps Happy is first recorded in Chaucer’s House of Fame in the sense of fortunate, lucky, from the English hap — chance, fortune. The modern sense, again, derives from Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales). In most of Shakespearean contexts, we need to be aware of the sense of “hap” in happily, as Shakespeare uses it synonymously with “haply”. When Queen Margaret says to York that had he been the Regent in France, instead of Somerset, York’s fortune ‘might happily have proved far worse than his’ (Henry VI, Part 2, III.i.306), she is not being mean. Not yet.

Lover Now: someone you are in a sexual relationship with, usually illicitly Shakespeare’s use/meaning: friend Lover as friend precedes the modern meaning by a little over 100 years, with both dating back to the Middle English period. Shakespeare, however, punster that he is, uses lover almost exclusively in the old sense. If you do not know what he means, some Shakespearean situations can sound pretty awkward, to say the least. Lorenzo, for example, fervently puts a plug in for Antonio to Portia as ‘a lover of my lord your husband’ (The Merchant of Venice, III.iv.7). He means friend, whatever you make of Antonio. . .

Friend Now: a person you know well, love and regard Shakespeare’s use/meaning: primarily, lover Friend is an Old English word which appears in texts as early as Beowulf; it derives from the Proto-Germanic frijōjanan and is cognate with the verb to free. It started with the sense we know today, with a slightly extended application to someone we hold in regard or a relative. This generalized sense, too, is encountered in Shakespeare and creates a pun or two… Now that you know what Shakespeare has in mind, you are clued in when Lady Capulet tells Juliet to stop crying, ‘So shall you feel the loss, but not the friend / Which you weep for’, and Juliet replies that she is weeping for her beloved — not the relative, ‘Feeling so the loss, I cannot choose but ever weep the friend’ (Romeo & Juliet, III.v.74-7).

Merely Now: only Shakespeare’s use/meaning: primarily, completely, utterly Mere appears in English in late 1300s and ultimately derives from Latin merus — pure, clear. Shakespeare uses mere(ly) largely in its now obsolete sense of entire(ly) (1443) which a little over a century later was overtaken by the modern sense. The two senses can be quite conflicting in Shakespeare, unless you take into account the context. It is the old sense we should read in Rosalind’s famous ‘Love is merely madness’ (As You Like It, III.ii.383) or in Portia’s firm ‘He [Shylock] shall have merely justice and his bond’ (The Merchant of Venice, IV.i.336).

Sad Now: unhappy, upset Shakespeare’s use/meaning: serious; indifferent; sorrowful Sad dates back to the early Middle Ages in the sense of sated or tired and developed the more intense sense of sorrowful shortly afterwards. It was a short step from here to the sense of serious, through semantic associations. These senses are lost to modern English. What we should keep in mind is that sad in Shakespeare’s plays and poems has a more emphatic meaning than we assume. It is not for want of a better word that Richard II calls his jailer a ‘sad dog’ (V.v.70), i.e. indifferent, blank-faced. The sense of seriousness lies in the expression ‘in good sadness’, as in Baptista’s ‘Now, in good sadness, son Petruchio / I think thou hast the veriest shrew of all’ (The Taming of the Shrew, V.ii.63-4). And for the sense of intense upset, look out for Queen Margaret’s sharp tongue: ‘Farewell, York’s wife, and Queen of sad mischance! / These English woes shall make me smile in France’ (Richard III, Iv.iv.114-5).

Wink Now: briefly close the eyes to signal a meaning Shakespeare’s use/meaning: primarily, close the eyes Wink in the sense of close one’s eyes appears in around 1200s. Interestingly, the modern meaning — which is absent in Shakespeare — is first recorded about 1100. Shakespeare uses wink mainly to mean close eyes or sleep, the latter surviving in the modern idiom ‘to take forty winks.’ It is not difficult to guess what the enamored Goddess means: ‘Art thou ashamed to kiss? then wink again, / And I will wink; so shall the day seem night’ (Venus & Adonis, 121-2).

Learn Now: gain knowledge, information Shakespeare’s use/meaning: teach, inform This is one of the oldest English words of Germanic origin and was initially used in the sense we understand today. Learn is a fascinating example of a conflicting semantic development. The modern meaning is absent from the canon but the syntax of the sentence is usually a good cue for the reverse meaning of learn in Shakespearean contexts, as when Claudio thanks Don Pedro: ‘Sweet Prince, you learn me noble thankfulness’ (Much Ado about Nothing, Iv.i.28). And, unlike the spirit of this article, here is Caliban venting at Prospero: ‘[…] The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!’ (The Tempest, I.ii.364-5.1).

The list is not, of course, exhaustive. There are some hundred or so False Friends in Shakespeare. Reading Shakespeare with any medium size etymological dictionary (e.g., Chambers) or a good Shakespeare glossary (e.g., Shakespeare’s Words) at hand, would be no bootless task but befriend you with Shakespearean False Friends, merely!

Looking for more Shakespearean fun? Celebrate the Bard’s birthday with us by checking out our Shakespearean English quiz!


About the Author Annie Martirosyan is a linguist and Shakespeare researcher, with a PhD in Philology. She has taught English language at university level and is a freelance translator, editor and reviewer. Annie has passion galore for Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, languages, words, words, words, literature, English churches and cathedrals, philosophy, etymology, folklore, British history and every single book of David Crystal who is her lifelong inspiration. She still reads fairy tales before bed.

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