A Butt-load of Butts

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

Sources:

Etymonline
Macquarie Dictionary
ShakespeareandHistory.com

A Butt-load of Butts.
#Shakespeare #language

Ploce: It Is What It Is!

One of the catch-all phrases of the 21st century is “It is what it is.” On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer, but when you think about it, it’s a statement that can indicate acceptance, resignation, or simple acknowledgement of a thing or situation. It can communicate “that’s all you’re going to get” or “that’s the best I could do” or “that will have to do. Despite its apparent simplicity, it’s a versatile statement to keep up one’s sleeve.

The repetition in this phrase is known as ploce, pronounced plo-chay .

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Ploce is a very old word which came into English from Latin from the Greek work plokē meaning complication or twisting, which came from the ancient Greek word plekein which means to plait or weave.

That in itself is fascinating, as it gives a clear impression of the words twisting or weaving around themselves as they are repeated. It’s quite a visual image of what the language is doing.

Ploce is a literary and rhetorical device by which a word is repeated for emphasis.

  • It can be simple repetition, like Popeye saying “I am what I am, and that’s all I am”.
  • It can involve a change in the meaning of the word: 
    Examples:
    “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
    “I don’t want to hear you talk the talk, I want to see you walk the walk.”

    Note: This is also called antanaclasis, but you’ll probably never need to know that unless you’re studying Rhetoric, Classics or Shakespeare.
  • It can involve a change in the form of the word.
    Example:
    “She cried until there was no crying left in her.”

    This is also called polyptoton. You’ll probably never need to know that either, unless you’re studying… you get the idea.

Shakespeare made regular use of ploce in his plays, but my favourite examples are to be found in speeches by Queen Margaret in Richard III:

Screenshot made using Shakespeare Pro v.5.5.2.3
Screenshot made using Shakespeare Pro v.5.5.2.3

Margaret often makes use of elegant imagery and rhetoric in her speeches, and her use of ploce is certainly eloquent.

Sources:
Silva Rhetorica
ThoughtCo.
Britannica.com

Ploce: It Is What It Is
#words #vocabulary #Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Baubles.


Because it’s December and Christmas decorations are everywhere, I wrote last night about the meanings and etymology of the word ‘bauble’ on WordyNerdBird. I wondered then if it were a word used by Shakespeare. To my delight, it was indeed!

Interestingly, Shakespeare references one of the continued senses and the obsolete sense of the word, and creates double entendre with it for extra credit.

In ‘Cymbeline’, the queen refers to Caesar’s ships bobbing around on the sea as ‘ignorant baubles’, describing them further as being like egg shells, being thrown and broken against the rocks.

A similar reference to boats as ‘baubles’ is made in ‘Troilus and Cressida.

In ‘Othello’, Cassio shows his disregard for Bianca by describing her as a bauble that follows him around and tries to make him fall in love with her.  That his companions laugh with him demonstrates that this use of the word to describe a pretty but not-so-valuable woman was easily understood at the time.

In ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, ‘bauble’ is used to refer to Kate’s hat – a decorative item of clothing, which is of little value in the play other than its use as a prop in her surprising demonstration of obedience to her husband, Petruchio.

‘Timon of Athens’ references a bauble as the staff of a jester or idiot, although in this instance, Aaron the Moor is suggesting that a king holding his sceptre and claiming to be faithful to God is the equivalent of his fool holding a bauble and pretending to be the king.

This sense of ‘bauble’ is extended in All’s Well That Ends Well, where the Clown refers to cheating on a man with his wife and giving her his bauble “to do her service”.  Clearly, this is a pun on the jester’s staff, used to reference an altogether different kind of rod with a special ending on it.

This is Shakespeare’s trademark wit in action, taking common language and creating word play loaded with double entendre that would delight the masses and the ‘gentlemen’ alike.

“Thou art too malapert…”

Peacock malapert know-it-all overconfident showy
Image from PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay

Malapert refers to a person who acts like they know everything and is confident that they are always right. 

While there are a number of characters in Shakespeare’s works whom we might consider to be malapert, Shakespeare uses the word only three times in his plays.

In Henry 6, Queen Margaret and her son, the young Lancaster Prince Edward, engage in a contest of insults with their captors: Clarence and Gloucester. As sons of Richard, Duke of York these two are the Lancastrian King Henry’s enemies, as the two houses are rivals for the English throne. Clarence calls the young prince malapert, highlighting his youthful confidence by calling him an “untutor’d lad”. 

Almost as proof of Clarence’s assessment, the prince responds by insulting them again. Despite the clevernesand bravery of his words, this proved to be a bad move, as “perjur’d George” and “misshapen Dick” respond by stabbing him to death. End of argument. 

In Richard III, the same Queen Margaret tells the Marquess of Dorset that he is malapert and warns him that his newly found nobility won’t protect him from being destroyed by the Yorks, particularly Richard (Gloucester) whom  she describes as a “bottled spider” and a “poisonous bunch-back’d toad”. Richard turns the insult back on Margaret, and Dorset promptly turns it right back on him. 

In the comedy Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch and Sebastian are engaged in an argument when Sir Toby insists that he “must have an ounce or two of this malapert blood” from his rival. 

Malapert
#words #Shakespeare #ShakespeareSunday

Knowing Your Literary Devices.

Knowing the literary devices used by Shakespeare and how they work helps those who read or study his works understand the ways in which he has shaped and crafted meaning in the lines delivered by his characters and in his poetry. It also helps readers to recognise the difference between literal and figurative language, and therefore to interpret more correctly the message of particular lines and scenes, and of texts as a whole. 

Of course, there are the standard ones that everyone should learn in school: simile, metaphor, alliteration, repetition hyperbole.  In senior high, that should extend to more sophisticated devices specific to the text being studied. My senior English class is studying ‘RichardIII’, so they are learning about stichomythia, anaphora and antithesis among others. Irony and dramatic irony are also heavy hitters in this play, so while they are by no means new concepts to the students, we are discussing them in detail. 

An excellent online resource for the definition and demonstration of rhetorical devices used by Shakespeare and many other dramatists, orators and writers is Silva Rhetoricæ.

The site is knowledgeable and fairly thorough, although some terms relating to Shakespeare’s plays are not included. The names of rhetorical devices are listed alphabetically, and the definitions are written in plain English with examples and alternative terms provided. There is also a handy pronunciation guide, which is really helpful when it comes to terms like ‘bdelygmia’ and ‘symploce’. 

While I do not expect my students to use the same degree of metalanguage that university students might use, there is definitely credit in nailing the key terms and using them to write about a text with greater eloquence and sophistication. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: ‘Sea Change’

These days we understand the phrase “sea change” to reflect something new and positive in one’s life. It is frequently used to describe a significant transformation in a person or in one’s lifestyle.

In Australia, it has also come to mean a physical move from the city or the country to live closer to the ocean, or even taking a holiday at the beach. 

The phrase hasn’t always had such positive associations. 

In Act 1, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s play ’The Tempest’, Prospero’s familiar spirit Ariel sings a song that makes Ferdinand believe that his father, Alonso, has drowned in a shipwreck, and that his father is buried at sea “full fathom five”, or five fathoms deep. Through the action of the water on his remains, his body is undergoing substantive changes: his eyes are turning into pearls and his bones into coral. There is nothing left of him that has not been transformed by the sea. 

Even worse, this story of the shipwreck and drowning is not true. It is, in fact, a ruse by Prospero to orchestrate a marriage match between his daughter, Miranda, and Ferdinand. Prospero is quite comfortable with using trickery and misleading magic to achieve what he wants to, and this is not the only time during this play that he willingly deceives others to get what he wants. 

So, even though it does still reflect a significant transformation, it has much darker connotations than the term does now. Deceit, manipulation, grief and emotional blackmail all factor into the origins of this phrase that we use so differently today. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “What The Dickens”

Many people assume that “What the dickens?” is a reference to the author Charles Dickens. 

Considering that Shakespeare wrote this expression in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ in 1600 and Charles Dickens was born in 1812, that is entirely impossible. 

Instead, ‘dickens’ is a euphemism for ‘devil’, as is ‘deuce’. When Mrs Page says “I cannot tell what the dickens his name is…” she really means ‘what the devil”.

It’s a more polite way of expressing strength of an idea or emphasising their intent, in this case, that she has no idea of the identity of the person she is being asked about. It’s exactly the same as people saying ‘heck’ instead of hell, ‘gosh’ instead of ‘God’ and ‘jeez’ instead of ‘Jesus’, and is probably  done for the same reason: superstitious avoidance of using religious terms, or “using in vain” the names of religious entities. 

There’s also a chance that, for some folks, old-fashioned good manners may enter into it, too. 

In short, this is a euphemism: an inoffensive word or phrase used to replace an impolite or offensive one. We use euphemism when we talk about “powdering my nose” or “going to see a man about a dog” instead of “going to the bathroom”, or “bathroom” instead of “toilet”.

Like many of Shakespeare’s words and phrases, “what the dickens” has stood the test of time and is still used as a euphemism today.

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “The World’s Mine Oyster”

When people say this, they usually assume it means that the world is at their feet and they are in a position where everything is going to work in their favour. Others say it to imply that they are “the pearl” and they are being cultivated for greatness. 

However, when these lines were spoken in Shakespeare’s ’The Merry Wives of Windsor’, the intention is actually quite different. 

In a conversation between two less-than-reputable characters, this conversation takes place: 

In other words, if Falstaff won’t give him money, Pistol will go and take it forcibly from other people. It’s about taking what one is not entitled to, and it has quite violent connotations. 

An oyster does not willingly open – it has to be forced.
An oyster does not willingly give up its pearl, which can take years to develop, and the oyster is often damaged or killed in the process of extracting the pearl. 

This is an image of violence, and not one of happy or fortunate circumstances at all. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “Star-cross’d Lovers”

Just like ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?”, this commonly misunderstood famous line comes ‘Romeo and Juliet’

I have witnessed so many people talking about Romeo and Juliet as “star-cross’d lovers” in the sense of their meeting and relationship being their destiny, and that the two were somehow fated to be together. 

This couldn’t be more wrong. 

The actual meaning of the term becomes clearer if one thinks of it in terms of the stars actually crossing them. 

Romeo and Juliet were never meant to be together. The fates were against them, right from the start, and it was never going to work out well. 

It’s important to remember that ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a tragedy, not a comedy or romance. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, the main characters always die. There are no happy endings. That’s a convention of the genre, and it is pointless to expect anything else. 

Not only that, but Shakespeare gives us the spoilers right there in the prologue, the opening speech of the play, which is where the phrase comes from. They’re going to die, and as they are laid to rest, so too will be buried the feud between their families, which is what made their love forbidden in the first place. 

The prologue to Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.

If, as some believe they do, the stars were to control one’s fortunes in life, the last thing you’d wish for is to be “star-crossed” in any way. 

Misunderstood Shakespeare: “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”

Of all the lines written by Shakespeare, this is possibly the single most misunderstood by a 21st century audience.

While it might be a romantic notion for a lovesick teenager to look out her window— not a balcony, by the way— and wonder where her beloved might be, that’s all it is. That is not what is happening in this scene. 

In early modern English, “wherefore” meant “why”.

Juliet is not asking where Romeo is.  She is asking why, of all the families in Italy, did her new boyfriend have to belong to the family with which hers had been feuding? Why did he have to carry a name that would be an immovable obstacle to them both? 

She goes on to insist “that which we call a rose by any other name would be as sweet”— in other words, it’s not the name that makes someone what they are.  If Romeo were to change his identity, he would still be the same person. What his name is should not matter — what sort of person he is, and the fact that she loves him, is what should determine their compatibility. 

That’s why when you’re waiting for a friend or looking for your dog, it’s incorrect to ask “Wherefore art thou, Buddy?”
It may sound cute, but it will make your Shakespeare-loving friends cringe, at least on the inside.