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…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: