Shakespeare’s False Friends 35: jet

Quill feather

jet (verb) ‘spout forcefully; travel by jet’

The sense of speed associated with this word does not arrive in English until the mid-17th century. For Shakespeare, the verb had only one meaning: ‘strut, swagger’ – the original meaning that arrived from Latin, perhaps via French, in the 15th century. This is the sense required when Belarius tells his sons that ‘The gates of monarchs / Are arched so high that giants may jet through’ (Cymbeline, III.iii.5). He does not mean that they are moving through the gates at speed. Similarly, Malvolio is not moving fast when Fabian says to Sir Toby, ‘How he jets under his advanced plumes!’ (Twelfth Night, II.v.31). And when Cleon describes the people of Tarsus as ‘jetted and adorned’ (Pericles, I.iv.26), he means ‘ornamented’. Shakespeare has one other use of this verb, as a phrasal verb, jet upon. This is when Aaron says to the lords, ‘think you not how dangerous / It is to jet upon a prince’s right?’ (Titus Andronicus, II.,i.64). Here it means ‘encroach upon – a development of another early sense of the verb, to ‘project’ or ‘jut out’.


“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.

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