Shakespeare’s False Friends 29: admiration

Quill feather

admiration (noun) ‘delighted or astonished approval’

The wonder we feel in modern usage is entirely to do with approval: we are pleased or gratified by what we see, even to the point of wanting to emulate it. This sense had developed by Shakespeare’s time, but the first use of this word, when it arrived in English from French in the early 16th century, lacked the personal element. It meant simply ‘amazement, astonishment, wonder’. The context often makes this clear – as when Rosencrantz says to Hamlet that ‘your behaviour hath struck her into amazement and admiration’ (Hamlet, III.ii.334). As the subsequent closet scene suggests, it is not admiration in the modern sense that Gertrude feels. Where we have to be careful is when there is no immediate context to help us out, and where the modern sense could apply, as when Innogen says to Iachimo ‘What makes your admiration?’ (Cymbeline, I.vii.38) or Ferdinand describes Miranda as ‘the top of admiration’ (The Tempest, III.i.38). And when the King tells Lafew to ‘Bring in the admiration’ (Alls Well that Ends Well, II.i.88), namely Helena, he means, perhaps a little sarcastically, ‘marvel’ or ‘phenomenon’.


“False friends (‘faux amis’) are words in one language which look the same as words in another. We therefore think that their meanings are the same, and get a shock when we find they are not. A 16th-century word may look the same as its Modern English equivalent, but its meaning has radically changed. The obvious solution is to get to know the false friends in advance, as part of the process of ‘learning to speak Shakespearian’.” – David Crystal

David Crystal is a writer, editor, lecturer and broadcaster, and is the co-author of the new Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary.

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