My dearest cuz,/ I pray you school yourself – MACBETH, IV ii

Occasionally in the midst of Olde Englishe Talke, Shakespeare will suddenly sound bracingly modern. The title of this post is one of my favorite examples. And the words all mean the same as they do now, down to the not-just-for-blood-relatives use of “cuz”.

But it’s difficult not to feel, when in the midst of performing Shakespeare, that everything would be so much easier if an audience knew just a couple of obsolete words and meanings. Just a handful. Just enough to take the fangs out of so many seemingly toothy moments of confusion for the average audience.

Most people get pretty quickly from context that wherefore = why and that the occasional shouted “Go to!” or “Marry” or “S’blood” is some kind of Elizabethan default for hitting one’s thumb with a hammer. An attentive actor will even make the Thees & Thous different enough from the Yous that playgoers get some shift in intimacy or power from the change without knowing(/caring) that the juggling of Thee/Thou/You is even happening.

But sometimes even a familiar word with a slightly altered meaning can stick in the ear like a distracting bug and not let you get on with what else is happening (pardon the simile; we’ve been performing outside since May). Someone suggested I lay out a short list, so here are few that came unsystematically to mind. Enjoy!



Now means: happy/sad                     Used to mean: lucky/serious

It’s easy to see how this took place – “happy” meant fortunate (related “happenstance” and “perhaps” and even just “happen”), but the standard response to good luck being good spirits, the transfer of meaning happened. So it’s worth remembering (for actors, too) that when Malvolio shouts, “I thank my stars I am happy!” (Twelfth Night, II v), that’s what he means: fortunate. And when Benedicke asks Claudio if he speaks something “with a sad brow” and later says, “Prince, thou art sad”, he’s more referring to them being solemn-faced than depressed.



Now means: affectionate                    Used to mean: foolish, mad, infatuated, gullible, stupid

It still occasionally has a bit of the old meaning – take the phrase “a fond hope” – but even then it’s a little lighter. In Shakespeare it’s usually downright insulting. it’s easy to see how the shift happened with this one, since we do it with other similar words for romantic emphasis (crazy for you, mad about you, etc.), but those words didn’t lose their other connotations as fond has. It comes from a Middle English word, fonnen, that’s probably also related to “fun”, though it also used to mean “to lose taste” in the sense of food going bland with age. You see the connection. “Your brain’s gone stale.”

“You see how simple and how fond I am” – Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, making a play for sympathy that is utter bull.



Now means: envious                          Used to mean: suspicious, doubtful, worried when Brutus says to Cassius, “That you do love me I am nothing jealous” it means “I believe it”; this is also definitely something you want to keep in mind anytime you see/hear Othello.



Now means: moral compunction or reservation                    Used to mean: a tiny amount, either of weight or doubt

A “scruple” was once an apothecary’s measure, a tiny unit of weight (only twenty grains), so when Antonio is insulting the men responsible for his niece Hero’s (fake) death in Much Ado, he says, “I know them, yea/ And what they weigh, even to the utmost scruple”, he’s being precise. Though the meaning that involved tiny, niggling doubt was also there, so when an imprisoned Richard II notes that even his thoughts of things divine “are intermix’d with scruples” it’s that sense.



Now means: um, we                    Used to mean: Royalty in double capacity

Speaking of His Highness: people still know what this means (in that when we mock someone fancy/full of themselves we might speak in their voice using the Royal We – “Oh, we are special, aren’t we?”) but to get specific just for fun, it meant that the King or Queen at some times spoke as two entities at once, both the head of state and the embodiment of the state itself. So Richard II isn’t just being a self-involved twit*, he’s fulfilling his obligations.



Now means: um, from                    Used to mean: away from, maybe even far from

This isn’t really that different, but is just an added sense we’ve lost that’s easy to cause confusion to the modern ear. Usually it means what we mean when we say “from”, but in Much Ado when Hero (knowing full well that Beatrice is hiding within earshot) says that “to be so odd and from all fashions/ Cannot be commendable.” “From all fashions” doesn’t mean Beatrice is, I don’t know, generated by fashions or was born within the city limits of Fashion (see, our modern sense doesn’t work at all here) but that Beatrice is away from, removed from (or has removed herself from, knowing her) all fashions. Does that make sense? It’s an odd one, but it turns up a fair amount.



Now means: naughty/slight                    Used to mean: the same thing, only moreso

There are quite a few words that have simply weakened over the centuries. “Naughty” is intentionally mild when we use it now, almost always denoting toddler-like intentionally-bad-but-only-a-bit behavior. But when one of the Tribunes shouting at the unruly masses at the top of Julius Caesar calls them “naughty” he means business. Naught in the sense of nothing; wicked, vile, and nasty. “Slight”, too, isn’t something we use as much of an insult, but Brutus’s “Away, slight man” to Cassius is a sharp dig, a more terse and angry way to call someone insubstantial but make it sting.

no springs


Now means: well, several things but none are what it…              Used to mean: fuss, to-do

I kind of like this lost sense of the word, that a disturbance or turmoil is a “coil”, not unlike our sense of the word “haywire”, I guess. We cut the line from our Much Ado (“Yonder’s old coil at home”) because the speaker’s (Ursula) behavior and the following lines gets the information (that all the ado was about nothing) and the mood across just fine without confusing the audience. This links to the next one, which doesn’t come up that often but that I like:


Now means: well, several things but none are what it…               Used to mean: lots, more, in fact, than enough

There was a colloquial sense of “old” (like in the above “old coil”) that meant roughly “a metric buttload” – the Porter in Macbeth  right out of the, you should pardon, gate, notes that if one was doorman of Hell there would be “old turning the key”. Hell being a busy place for a doorman. **


This isn’t a word people use anymore, and I think it’s useful enough for a comeback. It usually means “immediately” or “at precisely the right time”, also with the sense of “early”, which fans of punctuality will agree amounts to the same thing. So it’s good to rise betimes in the morning, or if you’re trying to get a bunch of guys to agree strongly to a poorly-considered political assassination, tell them “If these be motives weak, break off betimes” (JC, II i). That sort of thing. Nothing we don’t have a term for but…I just like it. It’s punchy. Let’s make this particular fetch happen, kids.



I’ve been all into this one before, but it couldn’t hurt to mention it again, seeing as how Shakespeare seemed so endlessly entertained by it.




* note: sometimes Richard II is just being a self-involved twit.

** We should count ourselves lucky that the play wasn’t called Old Coil About Naught, which could easily have happened. Except that “nothing” had another added slang meaning I won’t go into here, in case there’s a family audience…

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