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November 24th, 2004

Shakespearean English / amongst

by Barbara Wallraff

Lydia Rodriguez de Marko, of Dearborn Heights, Mich., writes: “You are my last hope! Years ago, while passing a bookstore in a mall, I noticed a small book with a title something like ‘Shakespeare’s Famous Quotes.’ It was a compilation of Shakespearean phrases that are common in today’s vocabulary. Needless to say, I forgot about it. But recently I saw ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ again and was struck by the many everyday phrases that originated in Shakespeare’s plays. I have contacted numerous bookstores, high-school English departments and a Shakespearean group, but no one can locate such a book.”

Dear Lydia: I’ll bet you’re thinking of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare!” by Michael Macrone. Most of this book discusses “Famous Phrases From Shakespeare” -- starting with “All the world’s a stage” (which Macrone explains “was already cliched when Shakespeare wrote” it, though of course its appearance in “As You Like It” is the reason we still remember the phrase) and ending with “the world’s mine oyster.” In between comes a cavalcade of familiar expressions, including “the be-all and the end-all,” “full circle,” “to the manner born” (yes, the original is “manner,” not “manor”), “one fell swoop,” “the primrose path,” “seen better days,” “strange bedfellows” and “wild-goose chase.”

Shakespeare also invented many words, and “Brush Up Your Shakespeare!” contains a short chapter about them. But anyone particularly curious about the Bard’s word inventions (for instance, “bedazzle,” “dauntless,” “fashionable,” “go-between,” “outbreak,” “pander” and “unearthly”) might prefer “Coined by Shakespeare,” by Jeffrey McQuain and Stanley Malless. And anyone interested in upgrading his or her vocabulary of abuse (“O viper vile!” “Dilatory sloth!” “Unlick’d bear-whelp!”) will have fun with “Shakespeare’s Insults,” by Wayne F. Hill and Cynthia J. Ottchen.

Speaking of books that would make good holiday gifts for word lovers, who would like a free autographed hardcover copy of my book “Your Own Words”? If you would, then find the mispelled word in this column and send it to me by mail or on my Web site so that I receive it within a week of the publication date of this column. One winner will be chosen at random from among the correct entries.

Linda Marty Schmitz, of Waunakee, Wis., writes: “I am wondering about the word ‘amongst.’ Is it a word? What’s wrong with ‘among’?”

Dear Linda: You’ll notice I used “among” in the last sentence of my answer to the question above. Nothing is wrong with it as far as I’m concerned. “Among” is the usual form of the word. “Amongst” is a less common -- or, some dictionaries say, a chiefly British -- variant.

“Among” has been in use for a thousand years, and “amongst” is actually two or three centuries newer. Nonetheless, in today’s America “amongst” sounds old-fashioned -- like “amidst” or “betwixt.” The 14th-century author Geoffrey Chaucer used “amongst”; so did the 16th-century author Christopher Marlowe. Shakespeare used it in his last will and testament. So “amongst” has a lot of tradition behind it. I wouldn’t suggest we try to get rid of it, any more than I’d recommend throwing out any other decorative, centuries-old antiques.

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

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