Thursday, August 1, 2019

False Friends

For the past forty years I've been trying to become fluent in Spanish. (I'm slow.) One of the tricky things about Spanish, and, I assume, other Romance languages, is that many of the cognates -- the words that look similar and have the same Latin origins -- do not have identical meanings. These kinds of words are called "false friends," because you think they're your friends, and they're not. You think you can just say "deceptionante" to mean "deceptive." But "deceptionante" is deceiving, and also disappointing, which is how  you will find life after you misuse the word in front of someone who knows Spanish, because it means "disappointing." You'll also be embarrassed, but don't say you feel "embarajada," because that means "pregnant." (Talk about embarrassing.)  You can't just say what you mean in Spanish by sticking an "a" or an "o" on the end of a English word, or by pronouncing a word with an "-ion" suffix the Spanish way. Okay, sometimes you can, but not as often as you might hope. "Es raro" in Spanish does not mean "It's rare." It means "It's strange." I tell you, these Spaniards have a different word for everything.

But here's what's really strange (or raro). It's when you read Shakespeare and you gradually realize that the English words in front of you don't mean what you think they mean. Many English words of four centuries ago are false friends, too.

In fact, this factor is overwhelmingly the biggest barrier to understanding Shakespeare's English in the twenty-first century. It's not that his characters often say "thee" and "thou" and "thine." It's not that they use archaic terms like "hither"
and "yon." It's not that Romeo and Goneril and Rosalind and Othello use words that have long mouldered in our verbal dustbin, such as "eliade," "fain," and "falchion," not to mention "dustbin" (actually, even that one is too modern for Shakespeare). No. It's that Shakespeare uses words we think we know. It takes serious guesswork, or else footnote consultation, to figure out that they meant something quite different in 1595, and thus in the speech we are reading.

But these, the "false friends," are also one of the fascinations of Shakespeare. That's because we can see in his use of these words the origins of their current meanings, and catch glimpses of the way our culture has changed alongside the shifting meanings of these terms. Here are ten examples.

1. Watch. Some wealthy Elizabethans had pocket timepieces, but they didn't call them watches. When the word in Shakespeare is used as a noun, it signifies the guarding of something, a meaning we still use today: "the night watch." What we're not used to is "watch" as a verb being used to mean "stay awake" rather than "look closely at." For the latter, Shakespeare would use "observe." ("Observe my uncle," Hamlet tells Horatio.) But, "She shall watch all night," Petruchio sadistically gloats, telling the audience of his plan to keep his new wife Kate awake by making a racket and general brouhaha.

2. Nice. This one's quite confusing, because we think it means, you know, nice. Something good. Polite. And, in fact, that current meaning grew out of "nice"'s original association with fancy manners. But those fancy manners were regarded more suspiciously during Shakespeare's time, as something phony and newfangled (a great Elizabethan word) and prissy and la-di-dah, and probably originating in France, and therefore suspicious. "Nice" meant "way too fancy." So when Bianca (Kate the shrew's covertly shrewish sister) rejects Hortensio's curious lute-lesson by saying, "Old fashions please me best, I am not so nice / To change true rules for odd inventions," she is praising herself by saying that she is in fact not nice, meaning not fancy-schmancy. (Oh, what Shakespeare could have done with Yiddish!)

3. Punk. To Shakespeare's audience, this word meant "well-dressed whore." Thus a character in All's Well that Ends Well refers to a "taffety punk" (whore dressed in taffeta). By a slow evolution, "punk" gradually came to mean "male whore" and then "young male rapscallion" (juvenile delinquent), and then, you know, "punk." As in, "Get lost, punk." The sexual meaning was lost over time, but was, for Shakespeare, paramount.

4. Conscience. This is a truly interesting example, because in Shakespeare's plays we see the word charged with two meanings, including the modern moral one we give it. In Hamlet that double meaning imparts a fascinating moral ambiguity to characters' choices. The most famous Shakespearean use of the word occurs toward the end of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech, when, after summing up the reasons a man might hesitate to perform an important action, Hamlet concludes, "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all." The line is puzzling, since all the reasons he's cited for inaction have nothing to do with feeling guilty (and that's what we mean by "conscience"). But it makes sense when we realize that "conscience" here means simply "consciousness," or the thinking activity of the brain. Hamlet has induced a kind of paralysis in himself simply by rationally considering all the reasons for delay. However, later in the play Laertes seems to use "conscience" in the modern sense of "moral guide," when he says to himself that he's reluctant to poison Hamlet because "it is almost against my conscience." In both cases, "conscience" is invoked as the factor constraining a man from murder. Is these characters' restraint born of coldly rational pragmatism, or out of some sense that it's wrong to kill? Or both? In this case, understanding both the old and the new meaning of the word "conscience" interestingly complicates the play.

5. Humor. Or, "humour," if you want it the English way. "Humor" doesn't mean things that are funny, although on the stage, humor, or a humor, usually was. The word derives from the old medical theory which held that the body's health had to do with the balance of precious fluids called "humors." If you were overly angry, or overly weepy, you had a humoral imbalance. You can easily see how the word "humor" acquired the meaning "funny thing." The change was almost entirely due to Renaissance comedy, which gave its characters all kinds of unbalanced, eccentric behaviors which were described, by them and others, as their "humors." In Shakespeare, the word is most frequently heard in the dialogue of a character named Pistol (found in the Henry plays and also in The Merry Wives of Windsor), whose humor is to yell all the time and challenge people to duels that he doesn't fight, as well as to speak in his own peculiar form of melodramatic archaic verse even when everyone else around him is speaking prose. Then he'll say, "That's the humor of it." It is.

6. Busy. These days we think it's good to be busy. We're proud of how busy we are. "Sorry, I'm busy." "I've been so busy." We think "busy" means "virtuous." Well, Shakespeare thinks otherwise, or some of his characters do. In Shakespeare, "busy" means "being a busybody." To the Elizabethans and Jacobeans, "busy" meant something like "meddling." We see this sense of the word in John Donne's famous poem, "The Sun Rising," an aubade which chides the sun for spying on him and his lover in bed: "Busy old fool, unruly sun." Another busy spy is Hamlet's Polonius, who hides behind the curtain in Gertrude's bedroom and gets stabbed for his trouble. "Thou findst to be too busy is some danger," says Hamlet, wiping his blade. But the busiest character in Shakespeare is Richard III. The word he uses most often to describe his meddlesomely murderous (or murderously meddlesome) behavior, derived from busy, is "bustle." He'll get rid of his royal brother, and then, "The world for me to bustle in." "Bustle, bustle!," he tells his lords before the Battle of Bosworth Field, where he'll defend his ill-gotten kingship. "Tomorrow is a busy day." Somebody who is busy is doing something he'd be better off not doing (and we would be better off if he didn't do). Remember that.

7. Ambitious. This word, like busy, is one we tend to use in a positive sense. That says something about us. Your mother wants your boyfriend to be ambitious. But in Shakespeare (and in Renaissance literature generally), ambition was the mark of the cold, greedy, self-serving, power-hungry Machiavellian. (Maybe your mother wants this for you. There are all kinds of moms.) Mark Antony says Brutus killed Caesar because he "was ambitious," and agrees, "If it were so, it was a grievous fault." Macbeth, Richard III, King Lear's Edmund -- all are ambitious. But they are the kind of boys you don't bring home to mother (at least, not to my mom).

8. Quick. The archaic meaning of this word will still be familiar to readers of the King James Bible, which was first published when Shakespeare was still alive. "The quick and the dead," a phrase from Second Timothy, means not "the fast and the dead," but "the living and the dead." "Quick" does mean "fast" in Shakespeare, but it also frequently means "alive," and sometimes doubly alive, or pregnant. In All's Well that Ends Well, Diana uses both the latter meanings of the word when she describes the pregnant Helena, who everyone thought was dead but isn't, this way: "one that's dead is quick." Helena's so quick, she feels her young one kick.

9. Turn. Here's another word that contained both its current and an older, now lost, meaning in Shakespeare's time. Like so many general verbs suggesting physical action, "turn" could mean "have sex." I know, I know, the Elizabethans had dirty minds. "Do" meant "have sex." "Work" meant "have sex." "Stand" meant "be ready to have sex." We find the sexual pun in "turn" in both tragedy and comedy. The suspicious Othello, who thinks his wife is cheating, says of her, "she can turn, and turn . . . and turn again." In The Merchant of Venice, Portia engages in a bit of bawdy humor when, as she and Nerissa form their plan to dress as men, she pretends to misinterpret Nerissa's question, "Why, shall we turn to men?" Portia responds, "Fie, what a question's that, / If thou wert near a lewd interpreter!" A lewd interpreter like Portia.

10. Fellow. Again, a word in transition in Shakespeare's time, and one which still bears as secondary its once primary meaning. For us, "fellow" means "guy" (a word which, after 1605, came to mean "fool," but that's a longer story). "Fellow" meant "guy" for Shakespeare, too, but it primarily meant "person of equal status," or what we would call "peer." This is why Malvolio gets so excited when the Countess Olivia, whom he serves, says of him, "let this fellow be look'd to." "'[F]ellow'!," he exults. "N]ot after my degree, but 'fellow'!" He thinks he's really moving up the social ladder now. Unfortunately for him, when Olivia said "fellow," she just meant "guy."

Shakespeare is both confusing and fascinating because "false friends" like "fellow" appear in almost every passage of his plays. But this is is how immersion in Shakespeare's English can reveal, for word-lovers, a whole history of language in transition, and with it a world in transition. Shakespeare's English, and the jokes his characters make (or which are played on them), show us a culture where social hierarchy was being increasingly challenged by an ethic of social "fellowship"; where an emerging ethic of "busy-ness" and ambition provoked fears of intrusiveness and social instability, and where people talked dirty almost 100% of the time. All the more reason to come to terms with Shakespeare.

No comments:

Post a Comment