Tag Archives: what books did shakespeare read

There’s a Word for That: Euphuism

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIt’s one of those words that evokes a double-take: did you say euphemism or euphuism? Is euphuism even a word? Yes – despite spellcheck’s very annoying tendency to autocorrect to “euphemism” euphuism is a seldomly used word that means a very elaborate or roundabout way of speaking or writing. Consider it a fancier way of saying overly wordy.

It’s a fascinating word when you examine its etymology. The word is an eponym (a noun formed after a person), named after the main character from Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, a romance published in 1578 by English writer and playwright John Lyly. That book was followed by a sequel, Euphues and His England published a year later. There is a specific reason that Lyly chose the name Euphues — it is based on the Greek word euphues, meaning “well-endowed by nature,” which in turn is derived from eu (meaning “well”) and phue (meaning “growth”).

Before prurient adolescent minds get carried away by the word “well-endowed” realize that 16th century writers did not mean its modern slang meaning (“having a large penis” — there, I said it; get over it). Rather, it meant that an individual had many talents. In the case of our friend Euphues, here is a character who didn’t act in porn films due to the aforementioned distinct anatomical feature; instead, he was able to speak in very long, ornate sentences. His speech was also distinctive in that he often spoke in sentences with parallel structure. Here are two examples:

“It is virtue, yea virtue, gentlemen, that maketh gentlemen; that maketh the poor rich, the base-born noble, the subject a sovereign, the deformed beautiful, the sick whole, the weak strong, the most miserable most happy. There are two principal and peculiar gifts in the nature of man, knowledge and reason; the one commandeth, and the other obeyeth: these things neither the whirling wheel of fortune can change, neither the deceitful cavillings of worldlings separate, neither sickness abate, neither age abolish.”

“A sharp sore hath a short cure.”

While most modern readers are quite unfamiliar with Lyly, almost everyone has encountered him — but they just didn’t know it. How is that possible? Lyly was an influence on the greatest dramatist in the English language: William Shakespeare. Shakespearean scholars believe that the Bard not only read Lyly, who was the source of Love’s Labour’s Lost, but also satirized him in the ornate, fancy speeches of Beatrice and Benedick (yet again, another penis reference) in Much Ado About Nothing, the lovers in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Polonius in the Tragedy of Prince Hamlet. So there.

Related terms are circumlocution, periphrasis, grandiloquence, purple prose, wordy, and sesquipedalian.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

Read related posts: There’s a Word for That: Esprit de l’escalier
There’s a Word for That: Jouissance
There’s a Word for That: Abibliophobia
There’s a Word for That: Petrichor
There’s a Word for That: Deipnosophist
There’s a Word for That: Pareidolia
There’s a Word for That: Macroverbumsciolist
There’s a Word for That: Ultracrepidarian
There’s a Word for That: Cacology

What Dictionary Did Shakespeare Use?

atkins-bookshelf-booksThe famous dramatist leaned over his desk and quickly scribbled out Scene 3 as it played out on his mind’s stage: “Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” Hmm. “Is that ‘nunnery’ with two n’s or one?” he pondered. Like any writer — famous or not — Shakespeare consulted a dictionary when he wrote. But which one? Shakespeare scholar T. W. Baldwin believes that the Bard’s dictionary of choice was An Alvearie or Quadruple Dictionary (referred to simply as the Alvearie) by John Baret. Baldwin explains the importance of Baret’s dictionary: “Baret was in effect the standard English dictionary of Shakespeare’s schooldays, and must have had powerful influence in shaping the English definitions of Shakespeare’s generation. But it is not likely that Shakespeare would have preserved the patterns so accurately if he had not himself turned many a time and oft to Baret for his varied synonyms.”

The earliest English dictionaries were essentially word lists, like the Promptorium Parvulorum (1499) by Richard Pynson and the Latin-English dictionary (1538) by Thomas Elyot followed by another version (1552) by Richard Huloet. Baret wanted to improve on those three dictionaries; hence, as a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, he enlisted the help of his students to compile the multi-language dictionary. In the preface, he explains the inspiration for the dictionary’s title: “[I asked my students to] every day to write English before Latin, and likewise to gather a number of fine phrases out of Cicero, Terence, Caesar, Livie, etc., and to set them under severall titles, for the more ready finding them againe at their need…  Within a yeare or two they had gathered together a great volume [like] diligent Bees in gathering their wax and hony into their Hive.” The first edition was published in 1573 and included words, phrases, and proverbs in three languages: English, Latin, and French. The second edition was published shortly after Baret’s death in 1850. Abraham Fleming who worked on the second edition as editor, added a fourth language: Greek. 

In an article for The Collation, a scholarly online publication of the Folger Shakespeare library, Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe discuss the books that scholars believe Shakespeare often consulted when he wrote: “We know that Shakespeare and other early modern writers used source books like the Alvearie to fire the imagination. Shakespeare’s fascination with proverbs in his plays, for example, can be traced back to some of the printed proverb collections that were becoming popular in the sixteenth century. As the lexicographer John Considine has demonstrated, dictionaries were an important source of proverbs during this period, since they offered up proverbial sayings to illustrate the meanings of words. We should not be surprised, then, to learn that Shakespeare read and perhaps was influenced by a book such as Baret’s Alvearie — it supplied him with a trove of sayings, associations, and conceits that many writers trained in the humanist tradition would have been keen to mine for their own texts.”

Knowing that Shakespeare consulted the Alvearie is certainly interesting. But what if we could locate Shakespeare’s very own copy of the Alvearie, complete with annotations in his own hand-writing? Now that would be fascinating indeed. And that is exactly what New York rare booksellers Daniel Wechsler and George Koppelman announced to the world on April 21, 2014, timed to coincide with the Bard’s 450th birthday two days later. Koppelman and Wechsler acquired the dictionary not through some shadowy intermediary with links to the Knights Templar (who are connected to everything!) but rather through a routine modern transaction — an auction on Ebay in 2008 for a groundling’s sum of  $4,050 (plus shipping). Although lacking a book plate or owner’s signature (or a bright neon sticker that announces: “signed by the owner”), the dictionary — a second edition — contains thousands of annotations in the margins by a handwriting believed to be the genius himself. The dictionary’s new owners describe the book thusly: “A most obscure book. A humble copy. An extensive network of annotations that, through obscurity and a lack of attention, comes to light only now, never previously studied or speculated upon. These are the basic stepping-stones to providing plausibility to the dream that such a monumental discovery is possible. The rest is in the evidence.”

The evidence that Koppelman and Wechsler allude to is the research they have conducted over the last six years and published in a limited edition titled Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light published in April 2014. The book is also available as an e-book, but more importantly the complete Alvearie has been digitized for scholarly research. The dictionary will be studied carefully by the scholars at the Folger Shakespeare Library and other universities. The race will be on for the first scholarly organization to either authenticate or to invalidate the dictionary as belonging to Shakespeare. If authenticated, the names Koppelman and Wechsler will be immortalized along with that of the Swan of Avon. Moreover, they stand to profit handsomely for the their find and scholarship. Jim Cummins, a respected and well-known antiquarian bookseller from New York believes that if Shakespeare’s dictionary were sold at auction it could easily fetch tens of millions of dollars, perhaps as high as a $100 million. Can you say: “Get thee to a bank”?

Read related posts: When Was Shakespeare Born?
The Most Common Myths About Shakespeare

The Legacy of Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folio
Who Are the Greatest Characters in Shakespeare?
Shakespeare and Uranus
Best Editions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

For further reading: T. W. Baldwin, William Shakespeare’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke, University of Illinois Press (1944)


%d bloggers like this: