Friday False Friends 13: dear

Quill feather

dear (adjective) ‘loved, highly regarded, esteemed’

This word has a range of positive meanings dating back to Old English, and all are found in Shakespeare, including some which are no longer current, such as ‘glorious’, ‘precious’, or ‘heartfelt’. But the major problem comes with the word in its negative meanings – ‘grievous’, ‘harsh’, ‘dire’ – which didn’t last much beyond the end of the eighteenth century. Examples include Hamlet talking about his ‘dearest foe’ (Hamlet, I.ii.182) or Prince Henry reacting to the ‘dear and deep rebuke’ he has received (Henry IV Part 2, IV.v.141). Offences, guilt, exile, peril, groans, and other unwelcome things can all be dear. Usually, the context indicates the right sense, but we have to be careful not to be caught off guard. When Romeo realizes who Juliet is (Romeo and Juliet, I.v.118), he exclaims: ‘Is she a Capulet? / O dear account!’ He isn’t calling her a beloved treasure. It’s a harsh reckoning.

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