Friday, January 1, 2021

Ten Things Shakespeare Wouldn't Say if He Were Alive in 2021

 I've got ten new things people say that I want them to stop saying. The people I have in mind are advertisers, news commentators, politicians, and university administrators. They are not like you and me. They speak their own language, one I know Shakespeare would have disdained, and there are certain current terms on the hearing of which I know he is spinning in his never-to-be-violated grave. Therefore, Shakespeare and I mutually request that these folks find substitutes. Drawing on Shakespeare's own rich vocabulary, I will recommend some, following this list of Terms Which I Request Be Left Behind with the Rest of the Miserable Year 2020.

1. "Gift" instead of "give," as in, "Gift one, get one free." Yes, I know Shakespeare liked to turn nouns into verbs. Who can forget "Uncle me no uncles,"

from the Duke of York in Richard II, or my personal favorite, "I'll ... elf all my hair in knots," said by Edgar in King Lear as he elfs all his hair in knots? However, Shakespeare would never have used "gift" as a noun because, why should he? The word "give" already existed, is almost exactly like "gift," and is already a verb.

2. "Modality." If you're a teacher, like me, you're especially sick of this one. You're tired of having to "choose a modality" in which to teach, and then, after you've chosen, being told that you have to teach on-line no matter what, because of Covid. What would Shakespeare have said instead of "modality"? Method. "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't," says Polonius of Hamlet's babble. Of on-line teaching, we could say, "Though this be method, yet there is madness in it."

3. "Pivot." This one is like "modality." We have to choose a modality in which to teach, but no matter what we choose, we must be ready to "pivot" to on-line teaching, because of Covid. Picture thousands of academics abruptly turning 90 degrees to the left, dropping all their grade books and Norton Shakespeares and protective masks and hand sanitizer, and activating their computers to address dozens of 2-D images of muted students, some of them driving, some of them stopping by Wendy's for a burger at the Drive-Thru, some of them, let's face it, not actually there, and attempting to teach this way. What Would Shakespeare Say to describe the situation? He would probably use a nautical term, such as "About!" He would describe us teachers as skilled sailors, and allow us a metaphorical boat in which to carry all our stuff. "About, my brains!," says Hamlet. That's what we need (boats, and brains).

4. "Myself," as in, "The plaintiffs in this cockamamie lawsuit are the president, one wacky Texan, and myself." The "myself" here is self-important as well as ungrammatical, imparting to the speaker two syllables instead of the measly solitary one found in the correct pronoun, which is "I." No Shakespearean speaker ever self-importantly and ungrammatically invoked "myself," not even Dogberry, who "hath two gowns and everything handsome about him," and would be the likeliest character to do so.

5. "Socialize" to mean "communicate." Let's be clear: "words" that end with "ize" are second-rate words in the first place. It's even worse when you use "ize" words in place of better words. What do you think of this sentence: "Let me socialize this recommendation with the others and then get back to you." I guess our regular socializing has been so constricted this past year that we are reduced to "socializing" recommendations, which, now, that I think of it, sounds like it means, trying to influence the recommendations to become socialists. At least this locution is not as bad as another one I once encountered: "I'll be funeralizing my great-grandmother on that date." Wow! I hope that involved honoring her with the customary obsequies, all ceremonies befitting her august personage, charitable prayers, funeral rites, and carved hatchments o'er her tomb. Surely it did.

6. "Both/and." How about this interchange? Q. "Should we prioritize [ugh] teaching excellence or gender diversity?" A. "It's not 'either/or.' It's 'both/and'." I doubt I have to point out the problem here, but I will anyway. Just "both" would have done. It means "the two," as when A Midsummer Night's Dream's Helena tells how she and Hermia sewed "both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion, / Both warbling of one song, both in one key, / As if our hands, our sides, voices, and minds / Had been incorporate." 

7. "Grim milestone." Last night, America passed a grim milestone. Tuning in to NBC nightly news, it was forced to hear the ten thousandth utterance of the phrase "grim milestone" from the lips of newscaster Lester Holt. Oh, and the number of Covid cases passed some supposedly significant marker rendered insignificant by the number of times Covid's passing of the previous marker was called a "grim milestone." I can't say for sure Shakespeare would never have used the phrase "grim milestone." In fact, it does sound like the sort of thing he would have a character say ... once. 

8. The verb "tease" used, but not in relation to a person. For decades I have winced at the phrase "tease out" in academic writing, as in, "We may tease out a subversive discourse of gender from Dogberry's dialogue." Now, I have to hear repeatedly that the current president wants to "tease a 2024 run" for a second term. As horrible as that prospect is, it is only slightly more appalling than the phrase used to describe it. I know what it's supposed to mean: that the president is teasing the public with the ghastly suggestion that he may run for office again one day. So, say that. Say whom he's teasing, or rather, torturing, with this suggestion. WWSS?  Shakespeare would not only say that this president "mocked us," but that he "mocked at" us (see the last act of Henry V), or that he jeered, or fleered, or sported with us, or made mouths at us, or that he tendered us fools, or that he "words" us (see Cleopatra of Caesar: "He words me, girls. He words me"). He would certainly make clear who was being insulted.

9. "Positioned." Apparently we not only need to pivot to the on-line teaching modality, we need to be positioned to do so. Everywhere, people are positioned, frozen in static attitudes of horrified expectation. They are positioned to distribute vaccines, to open or shut their restaurants, to strut about with bullet cartridges on display when a brash demonstration of fury and historical ignorance is suddenly called for. Why is "positioned" bad? Because I don't like it. Shakespeare is positioned to propose an alternative: "ready." What's wrong with "ready"? Shakespeare uses it, as in The Taming of the Shrew (in a command crack lawyer Rudy Giuliani is positioned to adapt): "Someone be ready with a costly suit."

10. "Worrying" as an adjective, as in, "New South African Strain of Coronavirus is Worrying." Now, "worrying" is just plain not an adjective. It's a gerund verb. I seriously doubt that the new strain of the coronavirus is worrying about anything. It's just invading. It's we who are worrying. We could take advantage of the fact that "worrying" can also mean either literally or metaphorically "gnawing at," and say, "Coronavirus is worrying us." That would be correct. But why not just say "worrisome"? People have forgotten "worrisome" exists. Shakespeare hasn't, because he never knew it. The word didn't exist in his time, nor did he invent it. But he had other words to use, like "fretful," "troublesome," and "ominous." Those are better. Any one of them is good. 

In conclusion: newscasters, politicians, and administrators, in 2021, enrich your vocabulary, as well as your insight. Read some Shakespeare! Do it now!


  1. Another fantastic post, Grace. Etymology reveals the true agents of bed-head. Elf infestations are surely on the rise during covid.