Shakespeare’s False Friends by David Crystal

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. Generations of French students have believed that demander means ‘demand’ (whereas it means ‘ask’) or librairie means ‘library’ (instead of ‘bookshop’). It is a sign of a mature understanding of a language when you can cope with the false friends, which can be some of its most frequently used words. Having a good grasp of the false friends is a crucial part of ‘learning to speak French’

Shakespeare has false friends, too. A 16th-century word may look the same as its Modern English equivalent, but its meaning has radically changed. Naughty doesn’t mean ‘naughty’. Revolve doesn’t mean ‘revolve’. Ecstasy doesn’t mean ‘ecstasy’. Some of these words occur so often in the plays and poems that they can be a regular source of misunderstanding. The obvious solution – as we do in learning a foreign language – is to get to know them in advance, as part of the process of ‘learning to speak Shakespearian’. A succinct account is all that we need, with the chief points of semantic contrast noted and the usage well illustrated.

A false friend a day doesn’t entirely keep the editor away, for there are still some difficult Shakespearian words to be learned – words that have no modern equivalent at all. Chirurgeonly, for example, presents a problem because it exists in the language no longer. But at least when you see chirurgeonly you know that you have a problem, and go to look it up. With naughty and the other false friends you could be fooled into thinking you haven’t got a problem, and you don’t look it up.

The only solution is to get to know Shakespeare’s false friends well. Making the words ‘true friends’ is one of the most important linguistic steps you can take to deepen your knowledge of Shakespeare.

Each week we will introduce you to a new false friend so that you can start to make them true friends as quickly as possible.

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