Friday False Friends 3: O

Quill feather

O (noun) ‘letter of the alphabet; zero’

As an interjection, O was very common in direct address, in Shakespeare’s time – ‘O false Cressid’ says Troilus (Troilus and Cressida, V.ii.181) – and it was widely used as an emotional vocalization where today we would write Oh. But it had several specific uses as a noun. In Love’s Labour’s Lost (V.ii.45) Rosaline teases Katharine for having a face ‘full of O’s’ – ‘pimples’. In Romeo and Juliet (III.iii.91), the Nurse castigates Romeo: ‘Why should you fall into so deep an O?’ – ‘sorrowful exclamation’. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream (III.ii.188) Lysander says that Helena ‘more engilds the night / Than all yon fiery oes and eyes of light’ – ‘orbs’, or possibly ‘spangles’ (of the kind used to ornament dress in the 17th century). And the word was widely used in this general sense of ‘circle, sphere’ – as when Cleopatra talks about ‘the little O o’th’ earth’ (Antony and Cleopatra, V.ii.81) and, most famously, when the theatre is described as a ‘wooden O’ (Henry V, opening chorus, l.13).

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