A villainous etymology

villain: a character in a story, movie, etc., who does bad things
Merriam-Webster

I’ve been on a major Shakespeare kick lately. One thing I noticed in my devouring of his plays is how many times the bard used the word villain. I mean, it’s a lot. If you turned it into a drinking game, taking a sip every time he used it (which you shouldn’t do because that’s dangerous), you’d in a sad state by act II.

This got me thinking about the etymology of villain. By its spelling, I assumed it came from French (it does), but I didn’t expect it would have much of a story after that. I was wrong. The Online Etymology Dictionary gave me the details.

Villain comes from the Old French word vilain, which does not mean “a bad guy in a cape lurking in the shadows.” It originally meant, in the twelfth century, a “peasant, farmer, commoner, churl, yokel.” In other words, a villain was just a regular guy who was unfamiliar with the trappings of high society.

Before Old French, villain had roots in the Medieval Latin villanus, meaning “farmhand.” Before that was the Latin villa, meaning “country house, farm.”

So, is it really so bad to be a villain? Shakespeare still thought so:

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
Hamlet: Act 1, Scene 5

 

 

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Fairy tale vs. fairy-tale

 

fairy tale (noun): a story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (as fairies, wizards, and goblins)

fairy-tale (adjective): characteristic of or suitable to a fairy tale, marked by seemingly unreal beauty, perfection, luck, or happiness

—Merriam-Webster

It’s finally feeling like summer. The wind is carrying lovely, flowery scents (unless you live in a city—then it’s most likely pee smell). Either way, this is the season to daydream and think of fairy tales. Now let’s make sure you are using the term correctly.

When used as a noun, fairy tale is two words without a hyphen.

Example: Mom told me a fairy tale about a princess who turned into a fairy.

However, when it is used as an adjective to describe a noun, it has a hyphen and looks like this: fairy-tale.

Example: Her fairy-tale wedding must have cost a fortune.

(Here, fairy-tale describes the noun wedding.)

Quiz
Check your understanding with this quiz. Fill in either fairy tale or fairy-tale in the blanks. The answers are below.

1) Every day as he sat in his cubicle, Ralph dreamed of a new life, a _______ life.

2) The _______ involved goblins and mean elves, so Susie thought it was scary.

3) Al had a new car, a new wife, a mansion, and a raise. Could this mean his _______ was coming true?

4. The cake had chocolate chips, frosting, strawberries, and fudge. It was basically a _______ dessert.

 

 

Answers:
1) fairy-tale (adjective describing life); 2) fairy tale (noun); 3) fairy tale (noun); 4) fairy-tale (adjective describing dessert)

 

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Death and Taxes

 

Today is tax day. And like many cash-strapped red, white, and blue-blooded ’Mericans, I filed for an extension. For a lot of us across the globe (exempting those rich @#$!s with offshore tax shelters), there’s much truth to the famous saying: Nothing is certain except death and taxes.

That phrase is most commonly attributed to Benjamin Franklin, who wrote to French scientist Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789: “Our new Constitution is now established. Everything seems to promise it will be durable; but, in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” (Franklin wrote this in French, and English translations vary.)

However, Franklin wasn’t the first to bemoan this reality. In 1716, Christopher Bullock wrote in his play, Cobbler of Preston, “Tis impossible to be sure of anything but death and taxes!”

In 1724, playwright Edward Ward wrote in The Dancing Devils, “Death and taxes, they are certain.”

And, Daniel Defoe wrote in his 1726 book, The Political History of the Devil, “Things as certain as death and taxes, can be more firmly believed.”

Well, maybe there is one more thing certain in life other than death and taxes: politicians taking credit for other people’s ideas.

Happy tax day everyone!

 

 

 

 

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Words and phrases Shakespeare invented

William Shakespeare wasn’t just one of the greatest and most influential playwrights in history, he was also a mega wordsmith. Some estimates say the bard coined 1,700 words, many of which we use daily—like eyeball. Seriously. Eyeball.

Here’s a sample of words Shakespeare invented:

  • addiction (Othello)
  • bedazzled (The Taming of the Shrew)
  • belongings (Measure for Measure)
  • bloodstained (Titus Andronicus)
  • cold-blooded (King John)
  • eventful (As You Like It)
  • eyeball (The Tempest)
  • fashionable (Troilus and Cressida)
  • jaded (King Henry VI)
  • laughable (The Merchant of Venice)
  • manager (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
  • mimic (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
  • moonbeam (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
  • new-fangled (Love’s Labour’s Lost)
  • obscene (Love’s Labour’s Lost)
  • puking (As You Like It)
  • scuffle (Antony and Cleopatra)
  • swagger (Henry V)
  • uncomfortable (Romeo and Juliet)
  • zany (Love’s Labour’s Lost)

Shakespeare also coined many popular phrases. Here is a sample:

  • all’s well that ends well (All’s Well that Ends Well)
  • bated breath (The Merchant of Venice)
  • be all and the end all (Macbeth)
  • brave new world (The Tempest)
  • break the ice (The Taming of the Shrew)
  • fancy-free (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
  • flaming youth (Hamlet)
  • for goodness’ sake (Henry VIII)
  • foregone conclusion (Othello)
  • full circle (King Lear)
  • good riddance (Troilus and Cressida)
  • jealousy is the green-eyed monster (Othello)
  • it was Greek to me (Julius Caesar)
  • heart of gold (Henry V)
  • in a pickle (The Tempest)
  • in my heart of hearts (Hamlet)
  • in my mind’s eye (Hamlet)
  • kill with kindness (The Taming of the Shrew)
  • laughing stock (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
  • neither a borrower nor a lender be (Hamlet)
  • neither rhyme nor reason (As You Like It)
  • parting is such sweet sorrow (Romeo and Juliet)
  • pomp and circumstance (Othello)
  • salad days (Antony and Cleopatra)
  • sea change (The Tempest)
  • something wicked this way comes (Macbeth)
  • to thine own self be true (Hamlet)
  • too much of a good thing (As You Like It)
  • wear my heart upon my sleeve (Othello)

Now goeth forward, dear readers, and speaketh awesome words. And if you can’t think of the right one, do like Shakespeare did and just make one up.

 

 

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Christmasy misspellings

It’s that time of year again. Red and green decorations line the streets and shop windows. Store clerks wrestle with the eternal question of whether to wish you “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” And here in Minnesota, it looks like a real-life snow globe.

Today I’m writing about some common Christmasy misspellings, so you can write your holiday cards and family newsletters with peace of mind (and peace on earth).

  • Christmastime is one word.
  • Ho! Ho! Ho! has exclamation points after each one.
  • Santa Claus has no E at the end.
  • Noël, the French word for Christmas, has an diaeresis over the E, if you want to be especially traditional. Though, “Noel” is also an accepted spelling.
  • Xmas does not have a hyphen after the X.

And if you want to add some international flair to your season’s greetings, here is how to say “Merry Christmas” in other languages:

  • Danish: Glædelig Jul
  • French: Joyeux Noël
  • German: Fröhliche Weihnachten
  • Italian: Buon Natale
  • Spanish: Feliz Navidad
  • Swedish: God Jul
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