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The Scrivener: Personal Reflections On "Romeo and Juliet": 2 - A Pioneer of Language

Continuing his reflections on one of the best-loved plays by the greatest of all playwrights, Brian Barratt highlights Shakespeare’s creativity and versatility in his use of the English language.

This brilliant series of articles will be continued next week.

To read more of Brian’s words in Open Writing please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

And do visit his challenging Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

In his TV series The Adventure of English, Melvyn Bragg states that Shakespeare used a vocabulary of over 21,000 words. The total might have been over 30,000 but the figure depends on factors such as whether different forms of the same verb are included.

Over 2,000 words which appeared in print for the first time in Shakespeare's works are still used today. Here are just a few of them:

accommodation (Othello, 1604)
advertising (Measure for Measure, 1603, in its current meaning)
assassination (Macbeth, 1605)
barefaced (A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1590)
courtship (Love's Labour's Lost, 1588)
lacklustre (As You Like It, 1600)
leapfrog (Henry V, 1599)
obscene (Richard II, 1593)
reliance (Timon of Athens, 1607).

A huge number of Shakespeare's sayings and phrases are still quoted today. Who has not said or heard, for instance, "To be or not to be?" and "I must be cruel only to be kind"? A much-quoted question from Romeo and Juliet is "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" It's likely that most people believe that wherefore means where. However, it means why, for Juliet is saying "Why must you be Romeo Montague when I am a Capulet?" and the next line is "Deny thy father and refuse they name".

Other well known lines from this play include:

What light through yonder window breaks?
Good-night, good-night! Parting is such sweet sorrow.
A plague o' both your houses!
I am Fortune's fool.
Adversity's sweet milk, philosophy.

Shakespeare expressed the same thought in a more widely known comment in As You Like It: "Sweet are the uses of adversity".

He also used a number of words in Romeo and Juliet which, although they might not be "new" words, appear only once in all his works.


...Scurvy knave! I am none of his flirt-gills.

A flirt-gill was a woman of light or loose behaviour, of wanton or giddy character. The phrase might arise from Gill being a nickname for Juliana but it could come from Jill-flirt, as the previous line refers to "twenty such Jacks" — this is a reference to the nursery rhyme "Jack and Jill" or "Jack and Gill", which was already in circulation.


I am none of his skains-mates. And thou must stand by too, and suffer every knave to use me at his pleasure?

The Nurse is speaking defensively and declares that she is not one of Romeo's fighting partners. Skain is an alternative spelling of skene, meaning a dagger or a knife.


I'll warrant you, when I do say so, she looks as pale as any clout in the versal world.

These words are also spoken by the Nurse, who has a tendency to use malapropisms, that is, incorrect or unintentional words. What she means here is that Juliet looks as pale as any piece of white cloth in the universal (whole) world.


In the early 1500s, a geck was someone who was easily fooled. As a verb, it meant to mock or deceive. A geck could also be an assistant to a conjuror, who helped by performing disgusting acts such as swallowing toads and biting the heads off chickens. Shakespeare uses the word geck only twice in his plays. Our modern word geek is related but has a different meaning... perhaps.

Gleek, though it looks similar, came from a different origin and had a different meaning. It is related to glee. It was used from the mid-1500s. Shakespeare uses it only twice in his plays, once in Romeo and Juliet (Act 4, Scene 5, line 112) referring to a jest or a jibe. As a verb, it means to tease or to taunt


But I'll amerce you with so strong a fine
That you shall all repent the loss of mine.

To amerce meant to punish with a fine. In effect, it meant to put someone at one's mercy.

We will consider more phrases and forms of language, and the story of theatre, in the next article in this series.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2009

— Oxford English Dictionary, CD-ROM version 2, Oxford University Press, 1999.
— Library of the Future CD-ROM, 4th edition, World Library, Irvine, CA, 1998.
Cohen, J.M. & M.J., The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations, Penguin Books, London, 1960.
Hinman, C., ed., The Norton Facsimile, The First Folio of Shakespeare, Second edition, W.W.Norton & Company, New York, 1996.
McCrum, R., et al, The Story of English, rev. ed., Faber and Faber/BBC Books, London, 1992.
Opie, I. & P., The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Oxford University Press, 1951.
Roy, K., ed., Romeo and Juliet, HBJ Shakespeare, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Ontario, 1987.


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