Friday False Friends 21: diet

diet (verb) ‘regulate food intake with health in mind’ The usual connotations of dieting, these days, relate to losing weight. Not so, in Shakespeare’s time. Indeed, most uses of the verb diet then are to do with feeding someone up to a satisfactory level. This ‘fattening’ sense is required when Alençon says, of the English, […]

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Friday False Friends 20: fearful

fearful (adjective) ‘causing fear; dreadful, terrible’ Fearful is one of those interesting words where two opposed senses came into the language at about the same time. In addition to its causative sense, which is the dominant one today, there was also a subjective sense, where the fear comes from within the person (‘full of fear’) […]

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Friday False Friends 19: wink

wink (verb) ‘close and open one eye, suggesting a meaning’ In modern usage, the wink is always significant, suggesting that the winker is aware of a secret, a joke, or some sort of impropriety. Although this usage was possible in Shakespeare’s day (‘I will wink on her to consent’, says Burgundy to Henry, of Princess […]

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Friday False Friends 18: keen

keen (adjective) ‘eager, ardent, intense’ (especially in UK) Most of the original senses of this word (‘wise, brave, mighty, fierce’) had disappeared from English by Shakespeare’s time. But the notion of sharpness was common, used especially with reference to weapons, and also metaphorically to talk about winds, thoughts, words, and senses, where it expressed such […]

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Friday False Friends 17: fact

fact (noun) ‘actuality, datum of experience’ This word arrived in the language in the 16th century, and quickly developed a range of senses. The one which has survived is ‘actuality’, but in Early Modern English other senses were more dominant. The neutral idea of ‘something done’ gained both positive and negative associations: a noble thing […]

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Friday False Friends 15: quick

quick (adjective) ‘rapid, swift’ The modern meaning was well established by Shakespeare’s time, but also common in the plays and poems are meanings which are now either obsolete or archaic. The sense of ’living, full of life’ is there when Anne rejects the thought of marrying Dr Caius: ‘I had rather be set quick i’th’earth, […]

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Friday False Friends 14: garb

garb (noun) ‘style of clothing’ This interesting word came into English from French probably when Shakespeare was in his twenties, and it was avidly seized upon by several writers. It always had the general sense of ‘manner, style, fashion’. Avoid the ‘clothing’ sense in Shakespeare, for that did not evolve until a decade after his […]

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Friday False Friends 13: dear

dear (adjective) ‘loved, highly regarded, esteemed’ This word has a range of positive meanings dating back to Old English, and all are found in Shakespeare, including some which are no longer current, such as ‘glorious’, ‘precious’, or ‘heartfelt’. But the major problem comes with the word in its negative meanings – ‘grievous’, ‘harsh’, ‘dire’ – […]

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Friday False Friends 12: vexation

vexation (noun) ‘(a relatively mild level of) annoyance, irritation’ When this word first came into English, in the 15th century, it was as far away from ‘mild’ as it could be, referring to aggressive – even physical – harassment. The strength of feeling was still present in Shakespeare’s time. When Sicinius tells the Plebeians to […]

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