Shakespeare’s False Friends 30: hope

Quill feather

hope (verb) ‘entertain a desired expectation’

Today’s strongly positive meaning dates from Anglo-Saxon times, but in the 13th century an alternative usage emerged which lacked the sense of desire, and this was still present in Shakespeare’s day. This new sense was more matter-of-fact, meaning ‘expect’ or ‘envisage’. Without being aware of it, we cannot make sense of Innogen when she says, of the Queen, ‘She’s my good lady; and will conceive, I hope, / But the worst of me’ (Cymbeline, II.iii.152). She hopes the Queen will think of her badly? No, she means only that she expects the Queen will do so. Hope as a noun also retained a more neutral sense, of ‘likelihood, possibility’. This is needed when Mistress Ford says to her friend, about Falstaff, ‘Shall we … give him another hope to betray him to another punishment?’ (The Merry Wives of Windsor, III.iii.183). Falstaff can hardly be hoping (in the modern sense) for punishment.


“False friends (‘faux amis’) are words in one language which look the same as words in another. We therefore think that their meanings are the same, and get a shock when we find they are not. A 16th-century word may look the same as its Modern English equivalent, but its meaning has radically changed. The obvious solution is to get to know the false friends in advance, as part of the process of ‘learning to speak Shakespearian’.” – David Crystal

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

Leave a Reply