As I finish the second year of writing this column (I know. I can’t believe I made it this far either), I sometimes look back on some of the sources I’ve made use of during that time, such as Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries and Strunk and White’s little gem “The Elements of Style.”

One source whose number of contributions surprised me though is William Shakespeare, whose three witches (Weird Sisters) from “Macbeth” were mentioned in the very first column to warn you about some of the weird words you might be encountering here (and I hope I haven’t disappointed you). So join me, won’t you, as I take a quick look back at the Bard’s contributions to my efforts. (I promise there won’t be a test at the end.)

His second appearance here came when I wrote about censorship. At that time, I mentioned how English physician Thomas Bowdler and his sisters, Henrietta and Jane, had published “The Family Shakespeare,” a “fig leaf” version of his works that omitted words and passages “which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.”

Among many other things, the trio changed the cause of Ophelia’s death in “Hamlet” from a suicide to a drowning, and turned Lady Macbeth’s famous line “Out, damned spot!” to a more family-friendly “Out, crimson spot!”

When I waded into the subject of hypercorrectness, I borrowed, “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun,” from “Romeo and Juliet.” That was to make the point that if small words were good enough for the Bard, then they should be good enough for the rest of us.

In the play, Shakespeare also shows that he’s not above making a bad pun. When Romeo tells the wounded Mercutio that it can’t be that bad, the mortally injured man replies “‘tis enough, ‘twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow and, and you shall find me a grave man.”


Shakespeare was not opposed to using some long words either. When I wrote about them, I mentioned his coining of “honorificabilitudinitatibus,” which refers to the state of being able to achieve honors. Spoken just one time by Costard in “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” it’s the longest word the Bard used in any of his works.

I revisited “Romeo and Juliet” when I wrote about my old Army acquaintance, the phonetic alphabet, pointing out that the star-crossed lovers’ names were used to make sure that the letters “R” and “J” were clearly understood when communicating over the radio.

While the phonetic alphabet is still used by the brave members of our military, not all of Shakespeare’s words have stood the test of time. Some of them, I noted, have even become what are known as “fossil words,” which are words that nowadays see little use. In “Hamlet,” he told of a bomb maker being “hoisted by his own petard” (hurt by his own efforts), while in “Love’s Labour’s Lost” he wrote about two people “being at logger-heads” (involved in a feud).

In “Henry VI,” Shakespeare has a character describe the English as “haire-brained” slaves, while today we spell the insult “harebrained,” due, no doubt, to the hare’s erratic behavior.

And finally, in my piece about malapropisms I was able to employ a line from “Much Ado About Nothing” spoken by the self-important constable Dogberry, who reported: “Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons,” which is not quite on par, I would think, as having apprehended two suspicious persons.

You did it, you read a whole column about Shakespeare without once having to reach for the Cliffs Notes.

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.” He can be reached at

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