Shakespeare’s False Friends 33: timorous

Quill feather

timorous (adjective) ‘easily frightened, lacking in confidence’

When this word came into English, in the fifteenth century, it was immediately used in two diametrically opposed senses: ‘feeling fear’ and ‘causing fear’. Only the former sense is found today. Shakespeare uses the word half-a-dozen times, usually in the same way as we do now, as when the French General tells Talbot ‘The Dauphin’s drum … / Sings heavy music to thy timorous soul’ (Henry VI, Part 1, IV.ii.40), or, six lines later, Talbot talks of his army as ‘A little herd of England’s timorous deer’. But the word can hardly mean ‘fearful’ when Iago tells Roderigo to raise the alarm by calling aloud ‘with like timorous accent and dire yell, / As when, by night and negligence, the fire / Is spied in populous cities’ (Othello, I.i.76). It takes something other than a fearful voice to warn everyone about a fire.

“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.