Friday False Friends 19: wink

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wink (verb) ‘close and open one eye, suggesting a meaning’

In modern usage, the wink is always significant, suggesting that the winker is aware of a secret, a joke, or some sort of impropriety. Although this usage was possible in Shakespeare’s day (‘I will wink on her to consent’, says Burgundy to Henry, of Princess Katherine, in Henry V, V.ii.301), the usual usage was simply to ‘shut the eyes’. Without appreciating this, we can read quite the wrong meaning into an utterance. When York advises his friends to ‘wink at the Duke of Suffolk’s insolence’ (Henry VI Part 2, II.ii.70), he is telling them to ignore it, not to connive with it. And when Othello castigates Desdemona for her supposed wrongdoing, by saying ‘Heaven stops the nose at it, and the moon winks’ (Othello, IV.ii.76), we must avoid the modern implication that the matter is not serious.

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