linguistics and lexicography Love English

As You Dislike It

© PurestockVirginia Woolf’s novel The Waves is rightly celebrated for its lyrical, experimental style. After each session of writing it, when her mind was ‘agape and red-hot’, she read Shakespeare. Her diary entry of 13 April 1930 reveals the awe Woolf felt at the playwright’s ‘word coining power’ and creative speed, producing words that ‘drop so fast one can’t pick them up’.

Just how many words and phrases Shakespeare coined is impossible to establish with any certainty. He is credited in the OED with the first written use of hundreds, but we can assume some were already being spoken – that Shakespeare, with his keen ear, picked them up and put them to literary use.

Many of his innovations are what linguists call conversions, described recently by Kerry Maxwell as when ‘a word migrates from one part of speech to another’. As a source of new usages, conversion is highly productive. But it’s often disliked by linguistically conservative types, for whom it’s just too big an ask.

Resistance to language change is part of the social landscape, a widespread reaction despite being often misguided. It can be seen in the frequent complaints about the non-literal use of literally despite centuries of reputable use. Notice that no one complains – any more – about the meaning of very or really, both of which took a similar semantic path.

Very was originally used to indicate that something was true or real, as in the phrase ‘he was a veri prophett’ in William Tyndale’s Bible of 1526. This meaning, though less fashionable now, is still used, and its semantic root is apparent in words like verity, veracity, and verify. Only later did people start using the word as an intensifier.

This emerging, emphatic use of very became extremely common in the sixteenth century. Shakespeare not only uses the word this way, but in Romeo and Juliet (2.4.28–32) he draws attention to conservative attitudes towards this change, when Mercutio says to Benvolio:

The pox of such antic, lisping, affecting
fantasticoes; these new tuners of accents! ‘By Jesu,
a very good blade! a very tall man! a very good
whore!’ Why, is not this a lamentable thing,
grandsire, that we should be thus afflicted with
these strange flies, these fashionmongers

Jane Austen makes a similar observation on the word nice in her novel Northanger Abbey – and the meaning familiar to us is now unexceptional. Critics protest the overuse of words like very and nice, but never their common meanings. The same fate may await literally, but because we see the change happening, some of us side with Mercutio. It really is very interesting.

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Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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