King Lear – One Word Wonders


Peace, Smulkin! (Ac3, Sc4, L148) The word comes from Harsnett’s Declaration, a tract written by the Archbishop of York that casts a skeptical eye over belief in witchcraft and devils – not The Devil, but those devils with a lowercase d he dispatched to create mischief on earth.  Enter Smulkin.

(Aside To Those Who Care: First two lines from the Declaration: Seduced and Divided Brethren, There be two grand witches in the world, that seduce the soul of the simple and lead them to perdition: Lying wonders, and Counterfeit Zeale. Love that.  Hey seduced simpletons.  Listen up.  Gonna drop some wisdom on your pointy-hatted heads. Kudos to the Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text and Imaging for providing that.  I wonder – does anyone ever get used to reading those f’s as s’s??)

Smulkin  – gotta say, that’s some smart branding, your archbishopship, the very sound of it scoffs at any claim to evilness.  Peace, Smulkin! Sounds like someone scolding an over-amorous poodle.

Not surprised that Shakespeare passed over the other devils’ names on offer from Harsnett: Modo, Mahu.  They just don’t hold a candle to skulkin’ Smulkin.   It’s the ‘kin’ syllable that seals its fate as cutesy.  Which leads us to:


This time perfect collusion between sound and meaning.  Thy minikin mouth (Ac3, Sc6, L47).  Minnikin means dainty, small – a pretty little thing.  It’s mini + kin, what else is there to say?   It just begs to be said through pouted lips.


The wrathful skies gallow the very wanderers of the dark (Ac3 Sc2 L45)

We English speakers are famous, or infamous, amongst other language-speaking peoples for turning nouns into verbs.  ‘He bicycled to the store’, ‘She googled it’.  They think we’re weird.

And somewhere around 1400s that just what happened to gallow – it started to be used as a verb… and wow, what a goody, I want it back in the common lexicon, stat.  It means to terrify, and of course that whole line is nifty, but it’s gallow that provides the perfect chill.  And completely makes the case for our tendency to verbize (oops I did it again).


It means useless. Very bootless (Ac5  Sc3 L357)  Initially I liked this one because it provides an image which gives a specificity that useless doesn’t.  Bootless.  Can’t walk very far, especially not in the winter, can’t kick someone without breaking a toe – what good are ya?

Then I consulted the OED and found out it doesn’t derive from the modern meaning of boot at all. It comes from the boot (or bote) which means ‘profit, advantage’ – think pirate booty.  So bootless means without advantage, and saying something’s bootless means there’s no profit in doing it.  Someone ‘getting the boot’ was not always such a bad thing…


King Lear – O, That Way Madness Lies… whatever.

Most people who love the English language have a similar intensity of feeling for the word ‘whatever’.  They hate it. Not me. Just say it – the initial wuh, the trailing ‘ever’ –it’s a calming exhalation.  Add in the meaning, it’s a zen mantra.  Cutting the mind off from the unproductive routes it was heading down, the regrets, the anger, the ‘what-ifs’ and ‘if onlys’.   It’s an instant perspective shift, disguised as a slacker credo.

King Lear finds his ‘whatever’ in Act 3, with ‘O, that way madness lies’, when he’s trying to work out the reasons for Regan and Goneril’s ‘filial ingratitude’.   How many times have you driven yourself crazy trying to figure out someone else’s motivations?  It’s those pattern seeking minds of ours, with a bit of rationality tucked in at the front.  Keeps tasking us with trying to translate emotional muck into logical bullet points.   Sometimes you just have to raise your shoulders and let them drop: whatever.  I use one expression or the other depending on scale and gravitas:

Wait – did the barista just scowl at me? I’m here every other day and always tip and – Oh, whatever.

Wait – did the supreme court just decide to hand over unprecedented influence to corporations in a blatantly partisan, screw-the-people, why not complete the transition of democracy to a billionaire’s club kind of plutocra  – O, that way madness lies.

Not that you should use these in place of action.  Protest.  Vote.  Seek vengeance on that father-killing uncle. But when you’re focusing on something that’s just stoking destructive behavior – whether it’s staring into a beer and sighing, howling at the weather, or going on your third extended rant of a Facebook status, well then, mes amis, I believe it is time to summon your personal whatever mantra whichever it is.

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