Friday False Friends 21: diet

Quill feather

diet (verb) ‘regulate food intake with health in mind’

The usual connotations of dieting, these days, relate to losing weight. Not so, in Shakespeare’s time. Indeed, most uses of the verb diet then are to do with feeding someone up to a satisfactory level. This ‘fattening’ sense is required when Alençon says, of the English, ‘they must be dieted like mules’ if they are to fight well (Henry VI Part 1, I.ii.10) or Innogen says to Pisanio, ‘Thou art all the comfort / The gods will diet me with’ (Cymbeline, III.iv.182). And the sense of a steadily increasing regime is present when Iago soliloquizes about wanting ‘to diet my revenge’ (Othello, II.i.285) or when Menenius says he will watch Coriolanus ‘Till he be dieted to my request’ (Coriolanus, V.i.58) – in other words, until he will listen favourably. The modern sense is in the wings, however. When one Lord says to the other, of Bertram, ‘he is dieted to his hour’ (All’s Well That Ends Well, IV.iii.28), the sense is ‘limit, restrict’.

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