Shakespeare’s False Friends 34: passport

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passport (n.) ‘document authorizing foreign travel’

This word came to be increasingly used in its present-day meanings during the 16th century, as people increasingly travelled abroad. But Shakespeare uses the word differently. When Cerimon opens a chest washed up on shore and discovers Thaisa’s body, he exclaims ‘A passport too!’ (Pericles, III.ii.64). As Thaisa was thought to be dead when Pericles had the chest thrown from his ship, it can hardly be the modern sense. Rather it refers to a document giving an account of who she is. And when Helena shows Bertram’s letter of rejection to the Countess saying ‘here’s my passport’ (All’s Well That Ends Well, III.ii.55) – meaning that she will use it as a reason for following him – it has a more specialized sense. She is comparing the letter to the licence given to an inmate of an institution to travel as a beggar, and her choice of the word speaks volumes.

“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.