Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Friday, March 2, 2012

"Words, words, words ...."

I taught Shakespeare for years with my students, and the past few years, I used to begin it all by having them write about their own experiences with the Bard.  The experiences ranged from "not much" to "too much."  The affect ranged from "He's the greatest" to "I wish his mother had been barren."

But most of the students knew that he was, well, important, and most felt sort of proud of themselves after wading with me through The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado about Nothing, or Hamlet, the three plays I taught most frequently.  There were always those who remained unconvinced, however, and their initial essays sprayed sparks of resentment, even rancor.

One student wrote one complaint (a complaint I heard quite a few times in my career): "Why did Shakespeare get to make up all those words but if we do it, we get in trouble!?"

Yes, Shakespeare did make up a lot of words--the OED credits him for the first published use of quite a few (though it's hard to know if he was just one of the first to write down a word that others were already using).

My reply to this complaint was always the patient (?!?) observation that we make up words all the time.  There are, of course, those technical terms that emerge continuously (turn-signal, flat-screen, USB, Twitter) and all sorts of other words and phrases (Hogwarts and Levis and Chipotle), and on and on and on.  I've told my students that if Shakespeare were to suddenly appear at their lunch table and listen in, he would not understand a thing they said. He would not recognize most things he saw, smelled, heard (what would he find to rhyme with Muzak?).  That's just cultural ignorance on his part--just as it is on ours when we come across a wild passage like this one from Shrew that deals with clothing and clutter and all things equine--told in terms the vast majority of us just don't any longer know:

Why, Petruchio is coming in a new hat and an old
jerkin, a pair of old breeches thrice turned, a pair
of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled,
another laced, an old rusty sword ta'en out of the
town-armory, with a broken hilt, and chapeless;
with two broken points: his horse hipped with an
old mothy saddle and stirrups of no kindred;
besides, possessed with the glanders and like to mose
in the chine; troubled with the lampass, infected
with the fashions, full of wingdalls, sped with
spavins, rayed with yellows, past cure of the fives,
stark spoiled with the staggers, begnawn with the
bots, swayed in the back and shoulder-shotten;
near-legged before and with, a half-chequed bit
and a head-stall of sheeps leather which, being
restrained to keep him from stumbling, hath been
often burst and now repaired with knots; one girth
six time pieced and a woman's crupper of velure,
which hath two letters for her name fairly set down
in studs, and here and there pieced with packthread."

I don't know anyone who could read that without a glossary--certainly not I.  But here's the message: Just as Shakespeare would have to learn about Angry Birds in order to talk with us; so we must learn his language, learn his world, to listen to him.

Which leads me to this: The other day, I was standing at the health club counter, about to leave, when I heard one of the attendants talking with a young man who was apparently studying criminology somewhere.  She asked him, "Do you have to learn lots of forensicky stuff?"

She'd just made up a word.  She knew what it meant; the guy knew what it meant; I knew what it meant.  (Oh, our agile language!)  Not that I think forensicky will catch on soon, but we often manufacture words for all sort of purposes and in all sorts of ways ("You are so abso-freakin-lutely wrong!").

All of which brings me back to Shakespeare and Shrew.  During the big battle between Katherine and Petruchio--a battle more of words than anything else--a weary Kate looks at him and asks, "Where did you study all this goodly speech?"

And Petruchio replies: "It is extempore, from my mother-wit."

In other words: I made it up.  Just as Shakespeare did.  Just as the rest of us do.

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