21st January 2005 at 00:00
The modern sense of "common, current" is quite often found in Shakespeare. Indeed, its use in Henry V (IV.iii.52) - "Familiar in his mouth as household words" - is the first recorded use of the word in its modern sense.

But other uses are not so familiar. Several reflect the word's origins in Latin familia "family". When it first came into English, in the 14th century, it meant "pertaining to one's family", and thus "intimate". By extension, it was applied to household things, such as animals and food.

So, when Evans describes the louse as "a familiar beast to man" (The Merry Wives of Windsor, I.i.18) he doesn't mean that people readily recognise it, but that it is domesticated. When Iago tells Cassio "good wine is a good familiar creature if it be well used" (Othello, II.iii.300), he doesn't mean that wine is well-known but that it is congenial. And when Falstaff talks of Mistress Ford's "familiar style" (The Merry Wives of Windsor, I.iii.42) he is talking about (what he imagines to be) her welcoming manner.

David Crystal

Subscribe to get access to the content on this page.

If you are already a Tes/ Tes Scotland subscriber please log in with your username or email address to get full access to our back issues, CPD library and membership plus page.

Not a subscriber? Find out more about our subscription offers.
Subscribe now
Existing subscriber?
Enter subscription number


The guide by your side – ensuring you are always up to date with the latest in education.

Get Tes magazine online and delivered to your door. Stay up to date with the latest research, teacher innovation and insight, plus classroom tips and techniques with a Tes magazine subscription.
With a Tes magazine subscription you get exclusive access to our CPD library. Including our New Teachers’ special for NQTS, Ed Tech, How to Get a Job, Trip Planner, Ed Biz Special and all Tes back issues.

Subscribe now