Friday False Friends 9: teen

Quill feather

teen (adjective/noun) ‘teenage; teenager’

This modern-sounding word in fact dates from the mid-17th century – but not as far back as Shakespeare. He knew a much older usage, deriving from an Old English word meaning ‘hurt’ or ‘trouble’, and it is this, in an extended group of senses, including ‘distress’ and ‘suffering’, which is found in the plays and poems. We hear it from the Nurse, when she talks about her (lack of) teeth: ‘to my teen be it spoken, I have but four’ (Romeo and Juliet, I.iii.14); and from Miranda to her father: ‘To think o’th’ teen I have turned you to’ (The Tempest, I.ii.64). And in the poems, Adonis complains to Venus: ‘My face is full of shame, my heart of teen’ (Venus and Adonis, 808). The old usage is so different from the modern one that there is unlikely to be any ambiguity; but the present-day meaning can nonetheless interfere, unless we consciously put it aside. Having said that, when the Duchess of York complains of ‘each hour’s joy wracked with a week of teen’ (Richard III, IV.i.96), some parents might wonder whether there is any difference after all!

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