It’s officially Shakespeare Week between 14th and 20th March; a week dedicated to celebrating the work of a man known as the greatest writer of the English language – William Shakespeare.
We’re getting involved here at New College Group in a series of blog posts that highlight some of the fascinating ways in which Shakespeare molded his words to create a language in its own right.
First, we take a look at Shakespeare’s false friends – 16th century words that look the same as their modern day equivalent, but the meaning has drastically evolved over time.
Today, we typically use the word temper to describe one’s state of mind in terms of being angry or agitated, but it hasn’t always carried this meaning. Centries ago, temper referred to a physical state. The meaning then developed to describe a mental state, before evolving somewhat further in the eighteenth century to mean a specific mental state.
Since the final definition comes much later than Shakespeare’s time, we cannot assume his use of temper means anger, but rather that he is referring to ‘state of mind’ – today, we might call this temperament. Therefore, in Shakesperare’s Corriolanus, when Aufidius says to Coriolanus, ‘You keep a constant temper’, he does not mean that Coriolanus is always cross.
We know awful to act as a negative intensifier, to describe something as terrible or exceedingly bad, for example: “I had an awful day”. In Shakespeare’s writing, the word was used in the original Anglo-Saxon sense, to mean ‘awe-inspiring’ or ‘worthy of respect’.
This becomes clear when used in a context denoting power, such as in Pericles, when Gower describes Pericles as a “benign lord that will prove awful both in deed and word”. This meaning, however, is a little harder to spot with more general wording like in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, when one of the outlaws tells Valentine that they have been “thrust from the company of awful men”.
The modern day use of wink carries a significant meaning, implying that the winker is aware of a secret or a joke. In Shakespeare’s day, the word meant to shut one’s eyes. Without knowing this, it’s easy to misinterpret his work. For example in Henry V1 Part 2, York advises his friends to ‘wink at the Duke of Suffolk’s insolence’; here, he is telling them to simply ignore the Duke’s behavior.
The modern meaning of habit describes a regular tendency or practice and Shakespeare does refer to this in The Two Gentlemen of Verona when Valentine states “How use doth breed a habit in a man”. However, the more obvious meaning of habit in Shakespeare’s day was to speak of clothing or costume and not of behaviour.
We see this in Henry V when Montjoy says “… you know me by my habit” to King Henry; and also in The Taming of the Shrew when Tranio says to Vincentio “… you seem a sober ancient gentleman by your habit”.
Shakespeare’s faux amis illustrate how language and meanings change with time; and the words we use in modern English have not always been exactly as they first appear. The work of Shakespeare can sometimes throw even the most competent of English speakers as a result.