Friday False Friends 24: pelting

Quill feather

pelting (adjective) ‘beating, lashing’

Today, pelting is a term we use chiefly of the weather – and especially in relation to forceful rain and hail. It is a usage that emerged by the beginning of the 18th-century. In Shakespeare’s time the meaning was very different: pelting – probably from a different etymological source – meant ‘paltry, petty, worthless, insignificant’, and it is important to avoid reading in any meaning of intense action. So, when Hector tells Achilles ‘We have had pelting wars since you refused / The Grecians’ cause’ (Troilus and Cressida, IV.v.267), he is not referring to the ferocity of the battles but to their pointlessness. Similarly, there is no suggestion of fierceness when Palamon tells his gaoler: ‘Thou bringest such pelting scurvy news continually’ (Two Noble Kinsmen, II.i.322). Other things that are ‘pelting’ in Shakespeare are locations and people: there are ‘poor pelting villages’ in King Lear (II.iii.18), a ‘pelting farm’ in Richard II (II.i.60), a pelting river in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (II.i.91), and a ‘pelting, petty officer’ in Measure for Measure (II.ii.112).

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