A butt-load has long been one of my favourite ways ton refer to a large amount, either physically or a figuratively— one might have a buttload of work, or have to carry or store a buttload of stuff. It amuses me, though, that butt-load can actually refer to an actual unit of measurement.
A butt is a large barrel for wine or spirits that holds roughly four times the size of a regular barrel or two hogsheads Butt came into English in the late 14th century from the Old French word bot which was the word for a barrel or wine-skin. This came from the late Latin buttis which also meant cask.
The butt used to be a legal measurement, but because the actual size and capacity tended to vary quite a bit — it could be anywhere between 108 and 140 gallons— it fell out of favour.
In Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’, the Duke of Clarence is drowned in a butt of malmsey wine. In terms of methods of execution, there are probably worse ways to go. Still, the references to the malmsey- butt never fail to make my students laugh.
This sense of the word is also used in ‘The Tempest’ where Stephano claims to have escaped the storm by floating “upon a butt of sack which the sailors heaved o’erboard”.
That’s because butt canalso mean one’s buttocks: the behind, the rump, the posterior. It first took this meaning from animal parts in the mid 15th century in relation to butchering and cookery, as a shortened form of buttocks, which was the name given to the meaty rear end of animals and people by about 1300. The application of butt to humans came later, as part of American slang in the mid 19th century.
Butt came to mean the the thick end of something or the extremity of a piece of land by about 1400, which is most likely how the term came to be used for the end of a rifle, and therefore a pistol, or of a smoked cigar or cigarette, which was first recorded in 1847.
Shakespeare’s Richard III uses this sense of the word when he responds to his mother’s invocation to “put meekness in thy breast, Love,charity, obedience and true duty” with “and make me die a good old man! This is the butt-end of a mother’s blessing— / I marvel that Her Grace did leave it out!” This is also a pun for butt as in his being on the receiving end of her insult.
By the early 1600s, butt had come to be used for the target of a joke or an object of ridicule. 1610s. This was derived from the Old French word but which meant an aim, goal, end, or a target in archery, which swans in turn the product of the Old French words bot for end and but for aim or goal which was used for a target for shooting practice or a turf-covered mound against which an archery target was set that dated to the mid 1300s.
It is this earlier sense of the word used by Richard, Duke of York in ‘Henry VI part 3’ when he tells his killer, “Come, bloody Clifford, rough Northumberland, I dare your quench.ess fury to more rage. / I am your butt, and I abide your shot.”
Othello also uses sense of this word in his final scene, where he says, “Be thou not afraid, though you do see me weapon’d; / Here is y journey’s end, here is my butt.”
The verb to butt meaning to hit with the head, as a goat, a fighter or a soccer-player might do, was in use by 1200 . This came from Anglo-French buter and Old French boter which meant to push, shove, thrust or knock. This came from either Frankish or another Germanic source which traces back to Proto-Germanic word butan, and before that to the PIE root *bhau which meant to strike.
In the banter between Katherine and Longaville‘Love’s Labours Lost’ V.ii, he admonishes her: “Look how you butt yourself with these sharp mocks, Wilt thou give horns, chaste lady? Do not so.” Katherine responds with a comment about he should die a calf before his horns grow, which is a witty little bit of innuendo as they part ways.
Another example of Shakespeare’s word play is the pun on butt in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ where Gremio describes the clash of wits between Hortensio and Petruchio thus: “Believe me, sir, they butt together well.” Bianca responds with both pun and innuendo: “Head and butt! A hasty-witted body / Would say your ‘head and butt’ were ‘head and horn.”
While it may be tempting to think that Doctor Butts, the court physician in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is another example of delightful word play, that was actually the name of the historical figure. Dr William Butts was the royal doctor in the court of Henry VIII. He was not the only well known member of his family: he came from a family of prominent Butts.
(I’m not even sorry. Sometimes the jokes just write themselves.)
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Most of the time, when people protest about the way the English language is abused, it’s a case of the language continuing to evolve as it has always done.
One such example is the practice of verbing, which takes the noun form of a word and transforms it into a verb form… like ‘verb’ and ‘verbing’.
Just last week, I was talking with a friend about how annoying she finds it when people say “I’m going to action that.” I’m sure she sought me out for the conversation because I’m both a word nerd and an English teacher.
“Action is a noun! A bloody noun! How can so many otherwise intelligent people get that wrong?”
“It grates on us because it’s recent,” I said. “We’ll get used to it.”
“No, I won’t! It’s just wrong!”
“You know Shakespeare did it?”
“Verbing. He did it all the time.”
“You and your Shakespeare. It’s like he’s the answer to everything.”
“You know he invented the word ‘friending’, right?”
She rolled her eyes and walked away. She didn’t even flinch at my use of the term “verbing”, which is exactly the same thing as “actioning” in terms of the language. After all, ‘verb’ is a noun, too.
It is the recent examples of verbing, such as “actioning” an idea, that we notice because we’re not used to hearing them yet. When Facebook was new, people complained the same way about “friending”, but these days nobody thinks twice about that. At some point in time, someone decided that it was okay to talk about bottling fruit, or shelving books, and now those terms are just everyday language.
It is also true, however, that some things people commonly say are, quite simply, wrong.
My pet peeve is when my students are talking about sport or some other kind of competition, and they say “We versed Team X”.
This is a common bastardisation of the Latin versus, which means ‘against’. It is commonly used for sporting matches and legal cases, and is generally abbreviated as v. or vs., as in Black v. White or Blue vs. Red.
My first response is always to ask whey they wrote poetry about another team. “You played them. You opposed them. You clashed with them. You competed with them. You did not write poetry about them.” Then I explain how the different words work, and what they actually mean.
The reason “versed” is wrong is because the words ‘versus’ and ‘verse’ have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Because ‘against’ is a preposition, it simply doesn’t make sense to say “We againsted them”. It is not verbing, by any stretch of the imagination.
The first time we have that conversation, they look at me with confusion. Some have a glazed look of fear, like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. This never fails to entertain me. The second and third times, they roll their eyes.
Over time, the tedium of having the same grammar-nerdy conversation persuades them to start using the language correctly. They learn, I win, and so does the English language.
As I mentioned last week, my Year 9 class is studying ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ this term.
Today my students investigated the words and phrases coined by Shakespeare.
I started by giving them a list of the words and asking them to highlight which ones they knew and used. This really engaged them, and it was great to see their motivation change as they realised that Shakespeare’s language isn’t all lofty poetry and words that finish in -eth.
I followed that up with some great videos and a website resource to extend their knowledge and reinforce their learning.
An unexpected bonus for me was the overall positive response to the exit quiz I made for the end of the lesson.
Of course, it wasn’t all enthusiastic. I’ve been teaching Year 9 English for long enough to know not all kids are going to respond positively, so I do at least try to make my quizzes fair so that they can express their feelings honestly, and kind of fun so that they actually want to do them.
They know there is no obligation to respond in a way that will make me feel good, and I know my students, so I’m confident that these responses are an accurate reflection of attitudes throughout the group.
Wait, what? Boring?
Thankfully, the next set of responses explained that. The 26% who found the videos boring are probably the ones who preferred the website based resource instead. That’s a relief!
There was a surprise waiting for me, though.
The funny thing is, I didn’t even know there was an option 7. I must have accidentally hit ‘return’ while making the quiz on Google Forms. I don’t know if Option 7 was perceived to be better or worse than ‘boring’. I’m telling myself that since they could choose multiple options, Option 7 was checked by those with a good sense of humour.
This was the closest I got to asking the students to identify themselves. If they don’t have to tell me their names, they are more likely to give honest responses. I’m not-so-secretly excited that so many of them identify as dragons.
There are a number of things in life that I’m passionate about. British history, especially the medieval period, has always been my favourite for reading and study, as have the works of Shakespeare, along with a good number of other writers. A teacher by profession, I love interacting with my students and leading them to those golden “penny drop” moments when something becomes real and meaningful. I have always loved reading. And as an Indie author who understands how hard it is to find readers, and how much harder than that it is to get reviews, I’m committed to reading, reviewing and sharing great Indie books of all genres.
I was very excited recently to discover, read and review an Indie novel about the life of Aethelflæd, the Anglo-Saxon queen. To my absolute delight, it was well-written and beautifully told. I thought then that several Christmases had come at once.
Now, less than a month after posting that review, it’s happened again, and I find myself at a quite magical point in time where my passions have met and over lapped, as though life has popped me into the middle of some invisible but very cool Venn diagram.
I’m currently teaching Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’ in one of my senior English classes. Not only is the writing and language incredible – there are curses and insult exchanges galore, along with some great monologues – it’s also the one with the hunchbacked evil genius who usurps the throne and has himself crowned king, the princes being murdered in the tower, and a fabulous haunting scene! The historiography of the play may be fairly tenuous, but the audience is left in no doubt of the creative genius of the writer. All of this means that I am getting paid to be an absolute nerd about the language, the writing and the history, all at the same time. That in itself is pretty darned great.
Tonight, though, as I was browsing through the Wordpress reader, I found an article about a great new Indie novel about the life of Henry Stafford, known in Shakespeare’s play as Buckingham, the ally and “other self” of King Richard III. When I went to a renowned global digital bookstore to check it out, I discovered the same author has also written a novel and several other books about Richard III.
That may not seem very exciting to some, but for me, it’s fantastic. I get to teach ‘Richard III’, indulge myself in Shakespeare and history to my heart’s content, and to read and review a couple of Indie books about two of the most fascinating characters in the play – and possibly in English history, it could be argued – at the same time.
My nerdy little mind is blown. I think I need to go and lie down.
My students have obviously learned something from studying Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’.
One student wrote the following assessments in this week’s essay:
“Desdemona is Othello’s wife; the least he could do is talk to her, but apparently that’s too much to ask of our protagonist.”
Another student was even more judgmental:
“Othello is a dirtbag husband that took advantage of Desdemona’s love for him.”
Spot on, I say.