A False Friend (Kind of) in Shakespeare

by Mar 12, 2020KJV, Linguistics3 comments

I’m a fan of the music of Philip Glass. It’s the Western classical tradition stripped down to its essentials: triad after exciting triad (until it gets old, which it sometimes does, but listen to the composer play Mad Rush and tell me if the repetition gets old!). My introduction to Glass was through my brilliant cinephilic friend Elijah W. and the profound, wordless documentary (?) Koyaanisqatsi. Good stuff.

I was excited recently when Spotify notified me that a recording of new Glass music—Glass has been an active composer since the 1960s—had just been released. In this case, it was music he wrote for a Broadway production of King Lear. A few of the pieces contain some lyrics, delivered in a rough Cockney by an actress/singer. The words are straight from Shakespeare, and they include this rhyming couplet:

Fortune, that arrant whore, / Ne’er turns the key to th’ poor.

I suddenly realized that 1) I didn’t know what arrant means because 2) I had only ever heard it as part of the phrase “arrant nonsense” (or something like it, like “arrant stupidity”) or “knights arrant,” a phrase in which the word means nothing to me.

The NOW English corpus

I checked the NOW corpus, my favorite place to do this kind of work (read: it is free), and sure enough, a full 51 of the 96 uses of “arrant” on the first page of results were in the phrase “arrant nonsense.” Among the rest of the hits, 6 were “arrant stupidity,” and almost all the rest were “arrant [something bad].” “Arrant nonsense” has become a sort of stock phrase, and you can use different words in the second slot as long as they’re akin to “nonsense.”

I had always assumed, without really thinking about it, that “arrant” was an older spelling of “errant.” “Arrant nonsense,” then, was nonsense that “errs,” goes astray. And, in fact, arrant and errant both derive etymologically from the common Latin word for “wandering” (iterāre), and the two spellings were used in English interchangeably until the 16th century—according to my fine friends Merriam and Webster.

Assorted dictionaries

But imagine my shock (and embarrassment, which I now share with you), after 35 years as a reader, to discover that “arrant” means…

Completely such; thoroughgoing: an arrant fool; the hotel’s arrant luxury.

That was the American Heritage Dictionary. Here’s the New Oxford American Dictionary that comes loaded on every Mac:

complete, utter: what arrant nonsense!

And that makes perfect sense. Arrant nonsense is complete and utter and thoroughgoing nonsense.

The OED shows how “errant” gave rise to “arrant.” A knight arrant was a “wandering” knight, a knight who was “out-and-about.” There were also bailiffs arrant.

But the word arrant came especially—for some reason I assume is lost to history, but this is the kind of thing language does all the time—to name thieves. Here’s the OED’s sense 2, and watch the shift the word undergoes even in this little paragraph:

2. In thief errant, arrant thief [= robber] originally an outlawed robber roving about the country, a freebooter, bandit, highwayman; hence, a public, notorious, professed robber, a ‘common thief,’ an undisguised, manifest, out-and-out thief.

The story of the word continues in the next sense. I just love the wit in the last line of the resulting OED sense 3.a.:

3.a. Hence: Notorious, manifest, downright, thorough-paced, unmitigated. Extended from thief to traitor, knave, rebel, coward, usurer; after 1575 widely used as an opprobrious intensive, with fool, dunce, ass, idiot, hypocrite, Pharisee, Papist, Puritan, infidel, atheist, blasphemer, and so on through the whole vocabulary of abuse.

Then, in sense 3.b., the word starts applying not to people but to things—like nonsense.

3.b. transferred of things, i.e. opprobrious deeds and qualities, theft, presumption, lie, device, etc.

And that, I think, is where the word has stopped. You can’t really say of someone, “What an arrant idiot he is.” The word doesn’t get applied to people anymore.

This is just the way language works. It morphs and changes and picks up on associations and burrows into them. It’s great. It’s awesome. I love language.

But for us, arrant is basically hanging on as a word combined with nonsense, and all of this word history is completely lost on us—and therefore no help to our understanding what arrant is really “supposed to” mean.

Malapropisms? Homophonic confusions? Misspellings?

I noticed in the NOW corpus that I’m not the only English speaker (and indeed, professional writer) who has incorrectly assumed that he understood the word arrant. Others, too, thought that it was just an alternate spelling of “errant.”

Just last July, The Standard (a Kenyan news site, I believe?), included this use of arrant:

…crime, assumed to know right or wrong and a three step disciplinary procedure for arrant children. Calculated to protect the welfare of children, the changes also recommend…

I had to chuckle here. This would mean, if it weren’t a mistake, that the children were complete and utter children, like avowed children who weren’t even hiding the fact of their childness.

And here’s VICE, from last June:

…storage to just one company. In 2017, for example, a few arrant keystrokes by an Amazon employee crashed numerous servers at an Amazon data center in Northern…

Those keystrokes were definitely keystrokes. Thoroughgoing keystrokes. You could hear them from the next cubicle!

Are these malapropisms or misspellings or what? There’s no way to know for sure, but at least one serious possibility is that other English speakers made the same mistake I did, confusing arrant (619 hits in the NOW database) with the far more common errant (17,542 hits in the NOW database [including 40 of “errant nonsense”!]).

False friends

The Corpus of Historical American English shows that arrant was paired with a broader range of adjectives in the past, though still all negative (“hypocrite,” “poltroon,” “coward”), making me think that people somewhen prior to now had a better idea of what arrant meant. COHA also shows that arrant used to be more commonly used and—therefore, I assume—more commonly understood.

All the above makes arrant in Shakespeare’s “arrant whore” a kind of a mild, connotative false friend. To some people, at least—and I think to a lot of people. We don’t use the word as often as English speakers used to use it, and we no longer use the word to refer to personal “offices” or occupations, like thief, traitor, knave, or whore. We apply it only to a tiny and specific portion of the vocabulary of abuse, mainly to the abstract qualities of nonsense, ignorance, and stupidity. And I think most people don’t know what “arrant” contributes to the phrase except for emphasis (?) and a whiff of hoitiness and/or toitiness (?). If they do get any specific meaning out of it, I think it’s a vague notion like the one I had, something akin to “errant.”

False friends happen when a word remains in English but its senses shift around and fall out of the language. And I think that’s happened with arrant, or what has just about happened. Today we would say, “Fortune, that open whore,” or “Fortune, that total whore.”

Isn’t language so intricate and cool? Man. I just can’t get enough of this stuff.


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  1. Bill Lowry

    Reminds one of James 3:1-2. Using words, either correctly or incorrectly is dangerous and very serious work!

  2. Barry

    Interesting stuff – but please proof read your articles before sending them. I found ‘dictioanry’ instead of dictionary, ‘keysytrokes’ instead of keystrokes. And I think you mis-use ‘alternate’ – it should be ‘alternative’.

    • Mark Ward

      Suitably abashed! 1. “Keystrokes” and 2. “Dictionary” fixed! Thx!

      But see NOAD on 3:


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