Friday False Friends 28: careful

Quill feather

careful (adjective) ‘taking care, showing care’

The original sense dates from Old English – ‘full of care’ – and this is the primary sense in Shakespeare. It means ‘anxious, worried’ when Queen Isabel says of York: ‘full of careful business are his looks! (Richard II, II.ii.75), when Wolsey describes Buckingham’s Surveyor as a ‘careful subject’ (Henry VIII, I.ii.130), and when Henry V soliloquizes: ‘Let us our lives, our souls, / Our debts, our careful wives … lay on the King!’ (Henry V, IV.i.224). It’s a short step from there to ‘caring, provident’, as when Lady Capulet says to Juliet, ‘thou hast a careful father, child’ (Romeo and Juliet, III.v.107) or ‘protecting, watchful’, as when Pericles says he ‘fled / Under the covering of a careful night’ (Pericles, I.ii.81). And a further narrowing of sense takes us to ‘painstaking, serious-minded ‘, when Feste reflects, ‘to be said an honest man and a good housekeeper goes as fairly as to say a careful man and a great scholar’ (Twelfth Night, IV.ii.9).

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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