7th January 2005 at 00:00
Keen (adjective) "eager, ardent, intense" (especially in UK)

Most of the original senses of this word ("wise, brave, mighty, fierce") had disappeared from English by Shakespeare's time. But the notion of sharpness was common, used especially with reference to weapons, and also metaphorically to talk about winds, thoughts, words, and senses, where it expressed such notions as "biting, piercing, penetrating". What has especially to be avoided is the modern sense of "eager" in the sense of "sexually attracted". This is not what Ophelia means when she tells Hamlet "You are keen" (Hamlet, III.ii.257) or when Helena refers to an angry Hermia as "keen and shrewd" (A Midsummer Night's Dream, III.ii.323). Here the ladies are using the word in its older meaning: "sharp, cutting, severe." A milder sense is heard when Escalus says to Angelo "Let us be keen and rather cut a littleThan fall, and bruise to death" (Measure for Measure, II.i.5), where the primary nuance is "perceptive, shrewd".

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today