Shakespeare’s False Friends 32: queasy

Quill feather

queasy (adjective) ‘unsettled, easily upset (especially of stomachs), uneasy, scrupulous (especially of consciences)’

We should think of Shakespeare whenever we feel nauseous, because Agrippa’s reference to Rome being ‘queasy’ with Antony’s insolence is the first recorded use of the modern sense (Antony and Cleopatra There’s a similar use in Much Ado About Nothing, when Don Pedro describes Benedick’s ‘quick wit and his queasy stomach’ (II.i.355); the gloss here is ‘delicate, fastidious’. The sense of ‘unease’ is present in the noun, too, in Shakespare’s only use, when Morton describes Hotspur and the other rebels as fighting ‘with queasiness’ (Henry IV Part Two I.i.196). With such uses all familiar, it would be easy to assume that Shakespeare’s remaining use would be the same – but we would be wrong. When Edmund reflects in King Lear, ‘I have one thing of a queasy question / Which I must act’ (II.i.17), it means ‘uncertain, hazardous’, or possibly ‘ticklish’. He isn’t feeling unwell at all.

“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.