Shakespeare’s False Friends 36: gender

Quill feather

gender (noun) ‘grammatical class; social notion of sex’

The grammatical sense of this word goes back to the early Middle Ages, but the sociological sense is a 20th-century development. The grammatical use is to be found in The Merry Wives of Windsor (IV.i.65), where Evans condemns Mistress Page for having no understanding of ‘the cases and the numbers of the genders’. But in the handful of other instances in Shakespeare, the noun has a much more general sense: ‘kind, sort, type’. This is the sense required when Iago, talking to Roderigo, compares their bodies to a garden: ‘supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many’ (Othello, I.iii.320). And when Claudius worries about ‘the great love the general gender bear’ towards Hamlet (Hamlet, IV.vii.18), there is a similarly general sense of ‘common people’. The Phoenix and Turtle has a further example: a crow is described as having a ‘sable gender’ (line 18) – black offspring. The sexual sense emerges in the verb, when Othello talks of ‘a cistern for foul toads / To knot and gender in’ (Othello, IV.ii.61): here the word means ‘copulate’.


“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 Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary.

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