Will's word

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Dear (adjective) "loved, highly regarded, esteemed"

This word has a range of positive meanings dating back to Old English, and all are found in Shakespeare, including some which are no longer current, such as "glorious", "precious", or "heartfelt". But the major problem comes with the word in its negative meanings - "grievous", "harsh", "dire" - which didn't last much beyond the end of the 18th century. Examples include Hamlet talking about his "dearest foe" (Hamlet, I.ii.182) or Prince Henry reacting to the "dear and deep rebuke" he has received (Henry IV Part 2, IV.v.141). Offences, guilt, exile, peril, groans, and other unwelcome things can all be dear. Usually, the context indicates the right sense, but we have to be careful not to be caught off guard. When Romeo realises who Juliet is (Romeo and Juliet, I.v.118), he exclaims: "Is she a Capulet?O dear account!" He isn't calling her a beloved treasure. It's a harsh reckoning.

David Crystal David Crystal is author, with Ben Crystal, of Shakespeare's Words, published by Penguin

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