Friday False Friends 12: vexation

Quill feather

vexation (noun) ‘(a relatively mild level of) annoyance, irritation’

When this word first came into English, in the 15th century, it was as far away from ‘mild’ as it could be, referring to aggressive – even physical – harassment. The strength of feeling was still present in Shakespeare’s time. When Sicinius tells the Plebeians to ‘Give him [Coriolanus] deserved vexation’, he is talking about ‘torment, real affliction’ (Coriolanus, III.iii.140). The sense of ‘agitation, mental turmoil’ is present when Iago advises Roderigo how to deal with Brabantio’s joy: ‘throw such chances of vexation on’t, / As it may lose some colour’ (Othello, I.i.73). And when Richard says to Lucy, ‘Vexation almost stops my breath’ (Henry VI Part 1, IV.iii.41), the word means ‘anguish, profound grief’. The related adjective and verb must be interpreted in the same way. When Constance tells Salisbury about her ‘vexed spirits’ (King John, III.i.17), she is being much more than moderately upset.

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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