“incontinent varlets”

A colleague has a calendar of Shakespearean insults which he sometimes shares with us. One recent insult included varlet, which got me thinking about what that actually means. It’s a variant of valet, which comes from vassal + et (diminutive), which in turn comes from Latin vassus, servant. 

I had always pronounced valet to rhyme with ballet, so I was surprised to hear the characters on Downton Abbey pronouncing it to rhyme with ballot. That was the original pronunciation. I think the first pronunciation arose later when actual valets fell out of general use and people read the word rather than hearing it. Valet parking always rhymes with ballet, though. 

The Shakespeare’s Words website shows 27 uses of varlet and associated forms. Without checking each one, it is just possible that some of them mean manservant without any accusation of roguery. Varlets come in various flavours, from thou precious varlet (probably in the sense of flagrant, gross) and a good varlet, through a brazen-faced varlet, dishonest varlet, dissembling abominable varlet, incontinent varlets (that needs some context), male varlet (which seems to suggest the existence of a female varlet somewhere (compare female valets, which exist)), thou naughty varlet, the veriest varlet, varlet vile and wicked varlet to the shouting varletry.

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Abominable words

A colleague informed us that today is National Grammar Day. He also has a desk calendar of Shakespearean insults, which often turn out to be strangely appropriate to what’s going on in our team, department and company. The combination of Shakespeare and grammar reminded me of the following quotation, from Henry VI pt 2:

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the Realme, in erecting a Grammar Schoole … thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.

Jack Cade was the leader of a popular rebellion in 1450. Wikipedia says that this rebellion was “one of the first popular uprisings in England that used writing to voice their grievances” but Shakespeare follows Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) and incorporates aspects of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, which “was highly anti-intellectual and anti-textual” and “ha[d] people killed because they could read”. The real-life James Fiennes, 1st Baron Saye and Sele, the Lord High Treasurer (= Shakespeare’s Lord Say) was executed for treason.

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Pun me

In an online video/chat session with an international social group I typed that I have a colleague who can outpun me. The autocorrect in that software changed that to outrun, which is probably true but it isn’t what I meant to say. I saw the autocorrect in action and changed it back to what I meant to say in the first place. Pages for Mac and WordPress don’t autocorrect it, but red underline it.

Pun can be a verb, but it is usually used intransitively: He can pun on any topic you name. But we can imagine Shakespeare writing: Jest me no jests, pun me no puns. Actually, we can’t, because the word wasn’t used at all until after Shakespeare’s time. 

There is a website called Pun me and an Instagram thread titled Pun me as hard a possible.

For most of my life I’ve been the chief punster in most situations, so it’s taken some getting used to.

Family history

My sisters and I have been notifying relatives and friends of our father’s death. One of them got a card from our mother’s father’s cousin. Given that our grandfather would be 115, how old is his cousin? One sister found a family history website that gives her year of birth as 1926, so she’s 92 – her father married late.

That’s a very big family history website. How far back does that go? One section (a family tree showing names only) traces that side of the family back to Scotland in 1520 (with a lot of Majors and The Reverends along the way). (At one point there were three Major John [surname]s in a row. The first was the son of Sir John, just to be different.) Impressive. But another section of the site (giving more or fewer biographical details for each person) traces the family back through earls of various places in Scotland (at one point there were three Earl Patricks in a row) to King Duncan – you know, the one fictionally killed by Macbeth (apparently the real Macbeth didn’t kill the real Duncan, but defeated him in battle) (you mean Shakespeare made stuff up?). The male line stops at Duncan’s father, but Duncan’s wife’s family traces back to Kenneth MacAlpin, the first ‘King of Scots’ (my 35x great-grandfather, if I’ve counted correctly) and past him to semi-history/semi-legend then complete legend.

I may have written a different essay for year 11 English if I’d known that.

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