Whether you’re a student who needs to learn Shakespeare for their English class or a veteran reader, chances are you’ve come across several words in Shakespeare’s collected works that confused or frustrated you. Some of them may seem made up or some may be words we are already familiar with that seem to have a different meaning in this context. The purpose of this post is to help with some of the most common Shakespearean terms that are either outdated or mean something else today.
Let’s start with words that we no longer commonly use today…
afore — in front or before something else.
alack — an exclamation, mostly meaning “oh no!”
alarum – a call to arms.
amain – a moving object at full speed.
arras – this one may still be used today, but in case you do not recognize it, it means a hanging tapestry.
assay – an attempt.
aught – anything, anything at all.
avaunt – a derogatory way of saying “go away.”
belike – likely to happen.
beseech – ask or implore.
bethink – think about or reflect on something.
caitiff – derogatory term for a pitiful or cowardly person.
chid – scold or reprimand.
corse – a corpse.
cozen – to trick or deceive.
doublet – close-fitting men’s jacket during the 14th-17th centuries.
ducat – the trade coin of Venice, currency.
durst – dared (specifically in past tense).
ere – before (only used for time).
fain – glad or pleased.
forbear – refrain from doing something.
forsooth – truly or in truth.
forswear – to give up doing something; swear off.
hap – chance or fortune.
hath – has.
hie – to go quickly or hurry.
morrow – morning.
murther – murder.
perchance – perhaps.
perforce – forced to (out of necessity).
thou – you (in a casual and informal sense).
ye – you, you all.
yon, yond, yonder – over there.
Those words can be frustrating for anyone. The only more frustrating cases in Shakespearean texts are words that we have today but meant something different in the context of the stories you’re reading. Let’s take a look at some examples below.
still – constantly.
sad – serious.
power – troops (in terms of arms and firepower).
physic – a cure that comes from a doctor.
office – someone’s duties or occupation.
meet – right or fit for something.
humour – mood (whether good or bad).
issue – offspring.
heavy – sad.
gentle – honorable or noble.
envious – with poor or ill-intent.
discover – to make known or make others aware.
crave – to request something.
colours – the flags of an army.
brave – general excellence.
bootless – useless.
base – of low status or quality.