Shakespeare’s False Friends 31: mischief

Quill feather

mischief (n.) ‘petty annoyance, vexatious behaviour’

The modern use, since the late 17th century, suggests a minor kind of aberrant behaviour, often without intentional ill-will. But when the word first entered English, around 1300, it was quite the reverse. When Joan harangues her captors with ‘mischief and despair / Drive you to break your necks’ (Henry VI Part 1, V.iv.90), she is using the word in its original sense of ‘catastrophe, calamity’. And when Romeo says ‘O mischief, thou art swift / To enter in the thoughts of desperate men’ (Romeo and Juliet, V.i.35), desperate hints at the stronger meaning required here too: ‘wicked action, harmful scheme’. Similarly, Talbot talks of ‘hellish mischief’ (Henry IV Part 1, III.ii.39) and Aaron of laying ‘Complots of mischief’ (Titus Andronicus, V.i.65). A third sense, ‘disease, ailment’, is heard when Don John tells Conrade: ‘thou … goest about to apply a moral medicine to a mortifying mischief’ (Much Ado About Nothing, I.iii.12).

“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.