"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Friday, May 13, 2011

This Quintessence of Dust

I recently reread Hamlet in order to teach it to my class. As I was reading the play this time (I have read it before), I was struck by some language that seems especially apt. You have seen or heard most of these words before, but they have fallen out of favor in our effort to dumb ourselves down to as few vocabulary words as possible. As a fan of British English, I want to celebrate these expressions in an effort to promote their use among the general populace of English speakers. Of course, some of this is just poetic language, but we could all add a dose of poetry into our everyday patois.
Language from the sequel, Hamlet 2: "Writing is hard."

"He may not, as unvalu'd persons do/ Carve for himself" (I.iii.19-20)
Laertes is explaining to his sister, Ophelia, that Hamlet is of royal blood and isn't able to choose for himself who he will marry. I like the image of having to carve out a single option from the morass of choices we all face. I'm going to start saying things like, "You may carve out whether you would like a banana or root beer popcicle."

"As I perchance hereafter shall think meet/ To put an antic disposition on," (I.v.171-172)
"To sleep: perchance to dream:" (III.i.65)
Perchance means "maybe." I use this periodically, and I'm certain it just makes me sound pompous. If we all used it once in a while, my own arrogance would seem diminished.
A wistful sentiment to be used when you want to die.

"Wherefore should you do this?" (II.i.34)
Wherefore means "why." As in, "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" It's not, "Where are you, Romeo?" It's, "Why are you a Montague?" If we all used wherefore regularly and correctly, I would never again have a student think Juliet is wondering where Romeo went.

"Thus it remains, and the remainder thus./ Perpend." (II.ii.104-105)
Here you have Polonius trying to explain Hamlet's behavior to his mother. The irony is that Polonius just got through saying things like "Brevity is the soul of wit," and he's anything but brief. And then he uses a word like perpend, which is to say, think, consider, ponder. It's funny, see? Or do you need to perpend on it?

"Lord Hamlet is a prince, out of thy star" (II.ii.141)
Dude, she's outta thy star. Sorry.
Another of Polonius's verbosities, this is his response to Ophelia when she admits her love for Hamlet. No one in this story is supportive of Ophelia being with Hamlet. And it's always because she's not good enough for him. Talk about adding to low self-esteem. But I love the phrase "out of thy star." We should all use this metaphor instead of the sports analogy "out of your league." If someone had carved to inform Billy Joel that Christie Brinkley was out of his star, it probably would have forestalled years of jokes at his expense.

"Good lads, how do ye both?"
"As the indifferent children of the earth." (II.ii.227-229)
Instead of saying, "How are you?" "I am fine," how awesome would it be if we all greeted each other thusly (and just in case you're one to pick on my grammar as I'm evaluating Shakespearean language, I'm well aware that "thusly" isn't officially a word; I use it thusly for comic effect): "Dude, how's it going?" "Meh. As the indifferent children of the earth, I guess."

"O! there has been much throwing about of brains." (II.ii.361-362)
One of the best images I've ever read. There's much to perpend here. It's not an argument unless there's been much throwing about of brains.

"The actors are come hither, my lord"
"Buz, buz!" (II.ii.395-396)
Hamlet waves away the news Polonius brings by declaring, "Buz, buz," as in, "Tell me something I don't know." This could be the new "Talk to the hand," perchance saying it with your fingers of one hand forming a point and waving it about as the flight of a bee.

"The lady doth protest too much, methinks." (III.ii.234)
Methinks the best explanation is to see "perchance" above.

"Get me a fellowship/ in a cry of players, sir?" (III.ii.281-282)
Alas, not this kind of player crying.
I love the English language convention of collective nouns calling a group of things something other than a "group." It works especially well for animals. Some are widely known and used, like a "flock of geese" or "a pride of lions." Others just sound cool, like "a murder of crows" or "a pod of dolphins" or "a crash of rhinos." Here's a link to a mega list of collective nouns for animals, if you're interested. I want to learn them all, but I can start with calling a group of actors "a cry of players."

"Alas!/ poor Yorick." (V.i.190-191)
Why don't we use "Alas!" any more as an exclamation? Instead, it's just swear and cuss and vulgarity followed by crudity. Our world could use fewer curses and more Alas-es. And you have to put the back of your hand to your forehead when you say it. It just more expressive that way.

"Dost know this water-fly?" (V.ii.83)
Of all the Shakespearean insults, this is one of my favorites. Not only does Hamlet call Osric an annoying bug, but he's a "water-fly" with an implication that this bug serves no purpose. This could carry a variety of uses. From "You little water-fly. Bring back my hairdryer" said of your younger brother, to "Was that idiot water-fly really your boss?"
Ugh. Gross.
 Here's a link to a random Shakespearean insult generator if you're interested.

So who's with me? Language is fun, no? Use more Shakespearean language and we'll create a better world. And bonus points if you can explain the title of this post.


  1. Very enjoyable. Please share this with your student. Perchance they'll become more apt to perpend more thoughtfully on Shakespeare's language...Alas, methinks they are as the indifferent children of the earth. If ever an expression were apt...

  2. I had the misfortune of being chosen to play Ophelia in high school. She is, beyond any doubt in my mind, the most tragic character Shakespeare ever wrote, and even just pretending to be her was depressing. But I love the play, sad as it is.

    I like perchance, too. And mayhap, though I'm not certain if that's ever been used in Shakespeare. I just like the way it sounds.

    And I use alas from time to time, too! Alas, poor Choo Choo, hurt by the love that was meant to protect you!

  3. I do use alas and perchance and methinks and words like countenance and bespoke. Mostly I just use them to make people say "What the heck did he just say?" Being confusing is a hobby of mine.

  4. May: Nice language, Lady.

    Chanel: OOh, high school Shakespeare. Yikes. But at least you understood the tragedy if you felt depressed playing Ophelia

    I'm sure S. used mayhap at least once. Don't know if it's in Hamlet, though. I don't have the play memorized yet.

    darev: So I dare you to use "As the indifferent children of the earth" next time someone asks how you are. Let me know how confused they got.

  5. Thusly should be a word. Just use it. That's how words become words anyway. Except in France, where the language is officially regulated and new words are suppressed. Silly French people.

  6. Is that, perchance, the rare Gaga Fly?

  7. Doug: using thusly is redundant. It only works to sound pompous in a funny way. It's like saying fastly. Fast is already an adjective, it doesn't need an -ly. And thus you have been grammarized. (See, I just made up a word. You can use that one.)

    Bryan: That's a funny, keen observation. But I also stole it from one of those "photoshopped or not" sites, so I don't know if it's even real. Pretty, though, no?

    And thanks for the Classic Post award. I'll be mentioning awards this week, hopefully...

  8. Fast is an adVERB, der..., but can also be used as an adjective...der... (that's my I don't know what I'm thinking sound...der)

  9. Great post. As it happens, I LOVE Shakespeare. Can't get enough of it. Except Romeo and Juliet. Maybe I've had enough of them. Selfish little water-flies.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  10. I use these all the time...perchance we all do and have overlooked as our fellows have carved out the use of such words and idioms around us. Methinks so. Thusly...I bid you farewell my ill roasted friend...all on one side.

  11. Once more unto the breach dear friends once more...

    I do so love Shakespeare. Great post.

  12. Julie: I agree. R&J get far too much publicity. Where's the love for Titus or Prospero. They keep making movies about them, too, but nobody cares.

    Charlie: I bet it's more painful to be ill-roasted than to be fully and uniformly roasted.

    Michael: Henry V is the best historical/kingly play S. wrote, for sure.

  13. As a self-professed Shakespeare nut, I thoroughly loved this.

  14. Thanks, Nicki. Shakespeare was a nut, wasn't he?

  15. how fun! out of the star and carve would be very interesting to see in colloquial language!

  16. I love this post! And I agree completely. The world could use a vocabulary adjustment. Why, just the other day, I used "alas" in a text message. ; )

  17. Thanks Tamara and Natalie. And there definitely should be more throwing about of brains.