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November 3rd, 2004

Mortal coil / hone vs. home

by Barbara Wallraff

Robert Inglis, of Hillsdale, N.Y., writes: “My wife and I have long been looking for the meaning of ‘mortal coil.’ The phrase is in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’: ‘For in that sleep of death what dreams may come / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, / Must give us pause.’ It seems to mean ‘the earth, this place’ or something similar -- but why is that?”

Dear Robert: Of course, the usual meaning of “coil” is, roughly, “spiral,” and the word can be a noun or a verb. But according to the Oxford English Dictionary, over the history of our language “coil” has actually been six different nouns and six verbs, most of them now obsolete.
Sometimes people will start using an established word in new, broader ways. Consider “cup,” which the OED considers to be one noun and one verb. Originally, a cup was something to drink from. The other senses of the noun (think of the Ryder Cup golf tournament and the phrase “in his cups” as a way of saying “drunk”) grew out of that meaning. So did the verb “to cup.”

“Coil” has a different kind of history. It was coined again and again. At one time or another, people used it as a verb to mean “to cull,” “to thrash,” “to lay in rings or spirals,” “to turn,” “to mound hay” and “to stir.” As a noun it has meant “a selection,” “a spiral,” “the breech of a gun,” “a mound of hay” and “a pen for hens” -- and also “noisy disturbance, fuss, ado.” It’s in this last sense, which became current in the 16th century, that Shakespeare used the word.

In fact, “mortal coil” -- along with “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” “to sleep, perchance to dream” and “ay, there’s the rub” -- is part of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech. Few of us nowadays use “coil” as an all-purpose synonym for “disturbance”: We just don’t say things like “Stop making such a coil! I’m trying to sleep!” But the phrase “mortal coil,” meaning “the bustle of life,” will surely remain part of our language as long as English-speakers take pleasure in Shakespeare.

Douglas K. Ward, of Middleton, Wis., writes: “Please discuss the misuse of the word ‘hone.’ I see the word used incorrectly in news stories referring to things like guided missiles ‘honing in’ on a target.”

Dear Douglas: Thank you. “Hone in” is indeed bad usage. Unfortunately, according to my databases, it now turns up in news stories more often than the correct phrase -- “home in.” A recent article about air pollution explained that researchers “now hone in on ‘microenvironments.’” One about bats mentioned “their sonar-like ability to hone in on things.” Wrong! Wrong!

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “hone in” as “to move toward or focus attention on an objective,” and a person might think that because it’s in the dictionary, it’s OK. But a usage note following that definition explains that “hone in” “especially in writing is likely to be called a mistake.” You bet it is. “Hone” means “sharpen.” People with well-honed language skills don’t use it in the sense of “focus.” Merriam-Webster’s ends by suggesting we substitute “home in” or “zero in” for “hone in.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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